Press Reviews

Sister Cities


Written by Mary E. Montoro

September 12, 2012

Sometimes family is the only group of people that can understand and figure you out completely. Of course, there are those times where a lot of-pointing and unsolicited advice can twist a nerve into a raw knot. Next thing you know, you are planning each other’s ‘accidental’ demise.  Four sisters, originally from Poughkeepsie, New York, come together from different parts outside of New York. First, there’s boho free spirit Baltimore (Christine Marie Quigless), attorney on the go Carolina (Nina Womack), writer on hiatus Austin (Barika A. Croom) and the poster child for having it all Dallas (Raquel Rosser).

Austin lives and cares for her ailing mother Mary (the wonderful Nancy Renée) who has Lou Gerhig’s disease. Her body turns against her, becoming weak by the degeneration of both the upper and lower body, before atrophy sets in.  Austin somehow manages to get her three sisters to come home because Mary passed away. Baltimore is the first to arrive. She literally flies across the room gunning for the bathroom. There, she finds her mother submerged in water with deep slits on both wrists. She bombards Austin with millions of questions, but, Austin bypasses them. Things really get heated when Carolina, a divorced mother, and asks Austin what happened. Again, Austin is vague. By the time Dallas rolls around, no one knows what really happened.

The sisters are named after the cities, in Carolina’s case the state, where they were conceived. They are all distinct from one another. Baltimore is sociology major at Princeton and she has no clue what to for a job. Carolina is the strong-minded, got it together woman who is straightforward, and Austin was a promising author but hasn’t written another book in five years after her first bestseller.  A lot of sisterly angst comes out as the women talk about past issues, their current status and what to do about Mary. As sisters go, there’s arguing, tears and guilt. Guilt about not visiting Mary often, about not helping Austin out more and other deep-seated issues.

After the Carolina, Dallas and Baltimore leave, Austin is left alone with their mother. Mary is a sharp broad. She knows her condition will not change. She’s ready to move on but needs Austin’s help. Austin is shocked at her mother’s request and quickly becomes conflicted on what to do. Miss Nancy Renée is superb as the ailing Mary. She doesn’t ask for pity or to be looked down on and say “poor dear.” She owns up to the emotional hurt she placed on her daughters. She loved each of her husbands and loves her girls.

Colette Freedman is a white playwright who flawlessly wrote a story about black women. A smartly-written play with vulnerability, strength, humor and a tight connection with family. This could have been done with Latinas or Asians or whichever group. It doesn’t take away the gem of the work. Plays are meant to be universal and Freedman makes that happen.


Langston & Nicolás


Written by Travis Michael Holder

April 21, 2010

In Bernardo Solano's riveting new work Langston & Nicolás, now debuting from the Towne Street Theatre Company at the Stella Adler, when controversial African-American poet Langston Hughes visited Havana in 1930, he quickly discovered on a tour of hotspots in the city that he wanted to be "as black as the music" he heard all around him. But to Cuban journalist Nicolás Guillén, later to become the country's post-revolutionary poet laureate after a lengthy political exile from his native country by dictator Fulgencio Batista, Hughes was the man with all the potential to lead his people, a man he considered to be the "future of the black race" in the United States.

Four years before the initial meeting between these two great men, Hughes had published what would be considered his manifesto, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, in The Nation, considered in its time to be the flagship for the Left:

"The  younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too. The tom-tom cries, and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain free within ourselves."

There couldn't be anything more difficult for a playwright than getting all the facts out there when writing a marathon-length historical play, while still leaving an audience caring about the real, once breathing people whose story is being told. Solano has managed to do just that superbly and without preaching in Langston & Nicolás, a sweeping epic spanning nearly four decades in the passionate yet often contentious friendship between Hughes and Guillén.

With the invaluable aid of director Nancy Cheryll Davis, founding artistic and producing director of Towne Street—who is also here credited for the conception of this notably imaginative construction featuring rousing music, spirited dance, and factoring in some of these two gifted writers' most fervent and still enduring poetry—Solano has created a remarkable piece of theatrical literature.

With each of the title characters portrayed by two different actors (Justin Alston and Chris Rivas as, respectively, the younger Hughes and Guillén, replaced after intermission by the more mature Brian Evaret Chandler and Armando Ortega in the same roles), Solano conjures the often problematic lifelong camaraderie between these two amazing mixed-race artists that began 80 years ago when Guillén was assigned to interview Hughes during his trip to Cuba. Hughes was by then already a controversial figure in America for his bold early socialist leanings, particularly for writing an infamous poem proclaiming Karl Marx as the new Jesus Christ, a savior to a troubled world that, sadly, never listened to his advice.

Himself weary of living in a country where blacks were sick of being thought of as only a serving class and "tired of being exotic," Guillén instantly connected with Hughes ("Questions often say more about the person asking, don't you think?" he asks prophetically in Solano's script) and the two men alternately agreed and quarreled on most every issue facing them over the years in their inequitable era of strange fruit swinging from trees in the American south and the courageous beginnings of Fidel Castro's Communist revolution.

As Guillén listened to Hughes' suggestion to give up his structured life to focus on morphing into the contentious poet he was meant to be, becoming more and more radical in his writing over the years, the fearful Hughes began to instead modify his stance on affairs of state and America's racial situation, partly from fear and partly from the increasingly more comfortable lifestyle to which he had happily become accustomed.

"I like to be selective about what I destroy," he writes to his friend, who begins to realize in return that the "combative are exiled, the docile rewarded." Until his death from prostate cancer in 1967, Hughes' own increasingly timidity puzzled both he and Guillén, fracturing and alienating their nearly obsessive friendship and devotion to one another.  In 1951, Hughes wrote honestly of his spiritual and political conundrum in his poem, What Happened to a Dream Deferred?:

"Does it dry up Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore
And then run?"

Davis has fashioned a masterful production, smartly designed and lit by Nathaniel Bellamy, splendidly costumed by Nancy Reneé, and featuring an incredibly contagious original score by Dane Diamond that even manages to successfully set one of Hughes' most famous poems to music. The wide but shallow Adler stage, made solid by Bellamy's expressionistic video backdrops that take us from Havana nightclubs to the Brooklyn Bridge to Franco's Spain in 1937, is impressively filled with an enormous cast of 17, sometimes in Davis' hands leaving the impression that there are many more in the cast as they assay different characters and wind through Havana, Madrid, Europe, and Harlem over the course of time.

Ana Maria Lagasca is a standout as the suspicious young wife of Guillén and later as Hughes' troubled mistress Elsie Roxborough, both Dane Diamond and Tené Carter Miller have memorable turns reciting Hughes' provocative poetry, Leslie La'Raine dances like the wind to Nancy Reneé's angular choreography, and potential Abercrombie & Fitch discovery Kyle Hamilton makes such a surprisingly stern-faced entrance as that notorious anti-Christ Roy Cohn ready to grill Hughes at the McCarthy hearings that one audience member when I attended let out an extremely loud and suitably panicky "Uh-oh."

Yet, in all honesty, some of Davis' players here are clearly stage veterans and some are… well… just manifestly sincere at what they do. Truly, however, this unevenness and occasional lack of more seasoned acting chops from some members of the ensemble proves to ultimately be something as quirkily infectious as the work of the more experienced performers in Davis and Solano's heartfelt and colossally determined project.


Nevis Mountain Dew

The TheaterTimes

Written by Christopher Gross

May 5, 2009

For its 15th season, Towne Street Theatre is reviving SteveCarter's [sic] 'Nevis Mountain Dew,' as part of its Black Classics Series. It's an appropriate choice. Not only is Carter a living playwright (he'll turn 80 in November 2009) worthy of the study, his play itself is about life, death and reviving those who become trapped in denial's dead-end. Producing/Artistic Director Nancy Cheryll Davis directs this worthwhile production, with the two strongest cast members being Dan Martin and Michael Craig Patterson.

Carter's world is nicely confined to one home, a two-story building owned by Everelda (Veronica Thompson), in which her brother, Jared (Martin), is vegetating on an iron lung.  Nathaniel Bellamy's set satisfies the challenge of compressing two floors into a level-and-a-half of stage platforms, and allows Jared to remain both center stage and out of the playing area. The incapacitated Jared, once a vibrant and powerful Alpha male, is married to Billie (Nancy Renee), who, understandably, seeks other avenues for ease the challenge of being married to one so constricted. She is, however, conflicted, which produces the strange relationship with Boise McCanles (Shon Fuller) that drives the play's arc. McCanles and his friend Lud Gaithers (Freddie DeGrate, alternating with Mark V. Jones) have arrived at the home to deliver the new television Billie has purchased for Jared's birthday present. Rounding out the group are Everelda's friend Zepora (Teressa Taylor) and her boyfriend, Ayton (Patterson).

A big appeal of 'Nevis' is the absence of white people and the pleasure of seeing a dramatic environment set far downstage of the ever-present backdrop of racism. Written in the '80s and set in the '40s, that backdrop is understood.  The subtle intra-racial distinctions of African-Americans by way of slavery and those who emigrated from the Caribbean (as carter's own home was divided by an African-American father and Caribbean mother), are quietly wrought. The evils here are not human – impersonal fate and its agent in the form of drugs that have claimed Ayton's sons. The play is about life, loss and at what point our dedication to each becomes pointless.

Director Davis manages the tricky sight lines well, keeping the cast moving around the stationary iron lung (an impressive piece of scenery on a theater budget, credited to Will Lidderdale's Set Shop. Of the other actors, Taylor's Zepora is the standout. This is a lovingly rendered production of an interesting and rewarding play that brings focus to a deserving writer.


Encounters / Retrospectives

Experience LA

Mary Emerita Montoro (contributing writer)

March 9, 2007

In accordance to Black History month, TST got their best playwrights and actors and came up with insightful and provocative works in Encounters/Retrospectives. The production is divided into these two parts.

Encounters takes place in an upscale restaurant where three different stories are told simultaneously and ugliness is quickly revealed. In "Rich Bitch", Jean (Teressa Taylor) is wealthy, dresses in designer clothes and lets a good bottle of scotch go by. She comes across Janna (Aba Arthur) an impeccably dressed professional who gets irked when called by her southern name, Hattie. The two women have more in common than they realize and soon the whole restaurant knows. "The Launching of Katie Garrison" is a sweet tale of Katie (Kia Skrine), a country girl meeting an old family friend Alma (Vonna Bowen) for a job interview where it turns out that Alma has her own problems to deal with. The story that stood out of the most was "Digital Natives" where The Blogger (Sean Cory), the Buppie (Leslie Miller) and the Kid (RJ Jones) are heavily involved into their technology, only to soon realize the value of human contact.

Jeff Stetson likely based his work "The Meeting" on either, the rumor that civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. met secretly, or the picture where Malcolm and King are caught shaking hands in 1964. Regardless of his source of inspiration, he creates this powerful meeting in his work. One week before Malcolm's murder, Malcolm (Rico Anderson) invites the Reverend (Abner Genece) over to his hotel room for a discussion. When they meet, a verbal boxing match occurs where both share, discuss, argue, and accuse. The two opposing leaders are fighting for the same cause but with very different strategies. Anderson gave the most potent prophesy on both their lives: if Malcolm dies first, King would be seen as a martyr; if King dies first, they won't let Malcolm live much longer. Genece and Anderson give convincing performances as Malcolm and King.

The flip side of the evening, Retrospectives provides a snapshot of 'free slaves' mentally trapped in captivity. Biscuit (Sammie Wayne IV), C.B. (Darius Dudley) and Whatshisface (Mack Miles) are runaway slaves on their way to Freedom Land. Their plans are soon cursed when another slave Georgia (Robin Ray Eller) tells them that slaves have been freed for over two years thanks to President Lincoln. Fast-forward to 1964 in Union Springs, Alabama a place so small it is not even on the map where "Very Strange Fruit" by Mark V. Jones lays out the truth. Brother Joe Wenn (RCB) lives with his wife Odessa (Leslie Miller), his mother-in-law Granny (Zoe Cotton) and their niece and nephew June Mae and Li'l Wenn (Miller and Jones from Digital Natives) way up in the mountains. Unfortunately, racist Sheriff Calhoun (Trevor Parsons) and Deputy Spitz (Tom Hyer) make their joy in tormenting the family. The Wenn family stands together against their torment.

All the playwrights stretch their phenomenal talents to the beyond. Stetson and Jones tell a rarely acknowledged part of history and society. Artistic director Nancy Cheryll Davis-Bellamy and producing partner Nancy Renee should be applauded for making these powerhouse performances accessible and valuable. TST is a bold company providing magnificent stories.


Psychology of Chromosome X

LA Weekly

Written by Erin Aubry-Kaplan

February 25, 2005

Don't be fooled by the ponderous title — the latest offering from the Towne Street Theatre company is a madcap, mostly satisfying collection of mini one-acts by Shontina Vernon that broadly examine sex and black women in the modern world. Though the themes of these six pieces are entirely universal to the gender — menopause, masturbation, regrets about motherhood — the fact that they are all more or less taboo subjects in black culture makes this show more radical and surprising than it might otherwise be.

Director Nancy Cheryll Davis never really settles on an overall tone, which ranges from sitcom to the crystalline object lesson of a short story, but the fluctuations are part of its appeal, and its point.

The mostly female cast is very good and versatile: Among the many notable performances are Nancy Renee as a loopy, maxi-pad-shoplifting mother, and Kila Kitu as her stoic daughter in "Ode to the Bleeding Ovarians"; Erica Tazel as a leisurely sex diva who incarnates a young, less-mannered Eartha Kitt in "The Art of Watering Wilted Flowers"; and the whole ensemble of the last piece of the evening, "Womanly Wisdamn Masquerading as Insanity," a surreal group-therapy session pitched somewhere between Oprah and The Twilight Zone.

Vernon's mostly loose script can lapse into preachiness, but she must be given credit for audacity and originality.



LA Weekly (recommended)

Written by Mary Beth Crain

February 25, 2004

In celebration of both Black History Month and its own 10th anniversary, Towne Street Theater has revived its highly praised 1997 production of Sheri Bailey's play, itself an adaptation of Nella Larsen's bold Harlem Renaissance novel about two black women in 1920s New York, and their experiences with passing for white.

Yet, Passing is not just about racial identity; it's about identity, period. The two main characters, Irene and Clare, are estranged childhood friends who reunite after 20 years to discover that they've both been living a lie. Irene, the wife of a prominent black doctor, hides her lesbian past under suffocating layers of silks and brocades as a society matron. Fair enough to pass for Italian or Portuguese, she occasionally plays white for convenience.

Clare is also fair enough to pass for white - enough so to be the wife of a rich, "nigger"-hating white man who, after some 15 years, still hasn't figured out he's married his favorite epithet. While the story sometimes descends into dated melodrama, it's rescued by Bailey's sharp, cynical dialogue and fine performances from the entire ensemble, particularly Nancy Cheryll Davis as Clare, Lira Angel as Irene, and Katherine Lorien and Lia Johnson as the young Clare and Irene, respectively.

And Joan Francis' incredible costumes help to imbue the production with the complicated essence of the Jazz Age, a curious mixture of inhibition and outrageousness, glitz and pathos, cynicism and despair.


Summers in Suffolk

Toulcan Times / Canyon Crier / Nite Lites

Written by Pat Taylor

June 19, 2004

This week's duo of reviews are both in-depth family dramas, dealing with the intricate, complicated issues therein. The joys, sorrows, secrets, guilts and bonds that seem to grow on most family trees are explored in both of these plays.

Continuing to present the best work of the Towne Street troupe and celebrating their 10th anniversary as L.A.'s premiere African-American theatre company, this is a magical evening of theatre! Excellent in every aspect, a highly rewarding experience awaits all who get out and see it.

Written beautifully by Sheri Bailey, covering the sagas of black people gut-wrenchingly and poignantly, this is an unforgettable journey in storytelling. Presented in four separate but linking powerful scenes, we peek into the lives of the Suffolk townspeople. From 1870 through 1957, we get a historical and emotional glimpse at the challenges and jubilation that a nation of Negro people faced and endured. From slavery to freedom. from anger to love, and from the eerie to the "real", this quartet of tales are mesmerizing.

Under the breathtaking, raw and realistic direction of Nancy Cheryll Davis (2 scenes), and Sy Richardson (2 scenes), the entire cast of 14 actors offer dynamic, passionate and perfect portrayals. The scenes are too complicated and intense to summarize. and the fine actors too many to comment on all, but I will mention some I that really stood out for me. Who exactly their characters are and how they fit in ... you'll just have to go and learn for yourself. Veronica Thompson (Cleo) and Richard Caines (Amos), as mother and son former slaves in 1870. and Tene Carter (Alice) as the pregnant girlfriend, were brilliant! I was so captivated, I feel that I didn't breathe during this entire scene. In my favorite and the most light-hearted scene, "A Summer Romance," in 1930, Nancy Renee (Eliza) and Lira Angel (Carrie) were delightful as two best friends with very opposite views and lifestyles. Nice work too, by Cliff Gober (Carter) as the fellow caught between them. In the last piece, in 1957, the dashing Rico E. Anderson (Monroe) effectively played a scene so smolderingly sexy, with Teressa Taylor (Edna) that it could've melted ice cubes!

The rest of the truly commendable cast included: a very hot Lynn Shamburger, Leslie Miller, Dan Martin, Mark V. Jones, Fitz Houston and Thea-Marie Perkins.

Triple talent Nathaniel Bellamy handled the set design, sound and lights, and Joan Francis gets my rave for wonderful, great looking period costuming throughout the generations.


Summers In Suffolk

LA Weekly

Written by Jim Crogan

June 19, 2003

This stirring drama chronologically traces the fortunes of an African-American family in Virginia, their descendants and friends, through a quartet of stories circa 1870, 1900, 1930 and 1957. Sy Richardson's direction of the first two quartos is uneven and undercut in the 1900 segment by the didacticism of Sheri Bailey's writing and some stiff interplay among those actors.

However, Bailey's writing and the performances delivered in the other three sections are all first-rate. The show begins with director Nancy Cheryll Davis' powerful dance number in the fog-laced Suffolk swampland, performed by Lynn Shamburger playing an iconic medicine woman named Mama Mojo who serves as a spiritual touchstone for the other characters.

In the 1870 segment, Richard Caines delivers a smart, understated portrayal of Amos Clark, the bastard son of his anguished mother, Cleo (Veronica Thompson), a former slave, and an unseen slave owner. Amos' first wife, Alice (the impassioned Tené Carter), dies in a failed escape attempt during the Civil War. Keyed by Davis' stirring direction, the final two playlets feature the beguiling Lira Angel as Carrie Clark, a free-spirited, newly minted Communist/spoiled rich girl living off her father Amos' money.

And in the final story, Teressa Taylor delivers an emotion-laden performance as a single mother and teacher descended from Amos' adopted son, Carter Wilder (Cliff Gober).

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