Danyol Jaye Reviews Don B. Welch's Stage Play, "Life Stories"
Photo courtesy of DonBWelchProductions.com
It’s always bitter sweet when we say goodbye to people or places in our lives that have been a staple in the progression of what we do, who we are, and how we got to be where we’re at right now. Don B Welch’s closing production of Life Stories was the last play to ever be seen at the renowned Los Angeles theatre, Stage 52. With great memories and even greater performances Don didn’t leave without putting his best foot forward!
I have seen my share of Don B. Welch productions and they are always entertaining with great meaningful messages that really capture audiences. However there was something VERY different with his latest work that left me speechless and in awe, not only of the talent but of the stories being told. Life Stories is an abstract look at human emotions, human interaction and some issues that transcend color, gender and ethnicity. It was as though Don went into a place he’d never been before and brought to the stage the best parts of his writing, directing and overall creative vision. The style of writing giving way to abstract vignettes that, though separate occurrence’s, worked together to tell the story of something we all must go through: LIFE!
I couldn’t possibly do this review justice by trying to summarize in a short few paragraphs all the talent that blessed this final performance at Stage 52. Normally there are performances that I see where only a few actors capture my attention and therefore warrant a spotlight of a mention in said summary. Yet the actors on that stage must ALL be recognized for their great work as individuals as well as an ensemble cast. Though the degree of skill and technique still vary from good to great, they ALL were fantastically placed and cast to bring to life this awesome and amazing show! So let’s begin….
Delores L. Stewart’s technique and skill always takes me back to a time when acting was truly classic and timeless; the days of Vivian Leigh or Joan Crawford. Stewart’s portrayal of Angelina, a mature woman whose life of acting and grandeur was nothing more than a dream hoped for but never really achieved, allowed for Stewart’s style of acting to find its home in this character. She gave you over the top without being too much but just enough to look at her character and ask yourself, “Is this lady for real?” Theresa Ford who played Mayzee, Stewart’s nurse, was quite hilarious to watch. She travels with Stewart on this proverbial rabbit trail in order to help a delusional woman feel better about being in a hospital for the elderly and, altogether mentally, not quite there! Their chemistry was organic and the scene itself was a bit campy but just enough to tickle your funny bone and help you realize that somewhere down the line there’ll be a more mature and not-quite-there version of ourselves looking back in the mirror; we should all hope for a “Mayzee” to help us keep it together!
This story of best friends Oscar and Sylvia was one that hit close to home for me. It was the tale of 2 friends with very large things to share with one another; both life changing. Oscar, played by Kevin John Peters, has developed romantic feelings for his best friend Sylvia, played by Petal d’Avril, and wants to marry her, spending the rest of their lives together. However Sylvia has a secret of her own to tell Oscar. She’s HIV positive! As you can see this was NOT your regular night of theatre. Peters is a charismatic guy off the stage and he doesn’t lose that charisma while on it either. Although there were a few points in which I felt like he fell out of character and was simply remembering the script he did not fail to enrage me as the culprit, who (from my interpretation) infected his characters best friend! He portrayed the good guy with a twinkle in his eye and a flashy smile that any girl would readily be comfortable with and easily fall in love with. That is, until you think to yourself, “Did he KNOWINGLY give her HIV?! THAT BASTARD!” Petal d’Avril did not disappoint either as she gave you the right emotions from the awkward uncomfortablility in needing to tell someone that you’ve been diagnosed with HIV to the self-loathing of feeling like you’re not worthy of someone’s love to the heart break of finally saying the words out loud to yourself. Her hurt, her pain, and even her naiveté was so genuine that, again, I sat there and almost yelled at her, “HE GAVE IT TO YOU GIRL!!!!” Needless to say that Kevin and Petal were a great team and brought a very poignant and relevant issue to life.
What happens when you’re a wife who can’t keep a baby full term? A husband who desperately wants kids? And your wife thinks you’re cheating on her? Syr Law and Shannon Mosley are what happen! The sheer caliber of talent that Syr Law brings to the stage is NOTHING less than amazing! Her commitment and dedication to the roles she plays is a Broadway level feat to witness. Her portrayal of Janelle, a wife who has had several miscarriages, thinks her husband is cheating, and has quite a low level of self-esteem, was real, raw, and deliberately delivered! Her scene partner Shannon Mosley, playing Franklin, did not disappoint either. Although from an acting perspective there were moments where I would have made some different choices, he did something that in and of itself intrigued me: He made me wonder whether he truly loved and cared for his wife? Or whether he was just spitting some REALLY good game! And although the scene ends with this married couple toughing it out through the hard times with the majority of the audience emoting a unison, "Awwwww", I sat there thinking to myself, “I bet he lying his ass off!”
Jimmy is an alcoholic who’s lost his job and has gone through his share of tough times; including being abandoned by his mother, spending his whole childhood life in foster care, and never gaining the emotional foundation to give to his son the love he himself never had. Great story! However, NONE of this story is worth 2 wooden nickels had it not been delivered with the mastery, the emotion, the dedication, the technique and the skill of the ONE and ONLY, Tobyus Green! One of the things that often annoy me about the Black LA Theatre circle (aside from the fact that some folks are just plain STANK) is the audience! As people of color it is in our nature to find a silver lining in everything, thereby, allowing us to laugh at things that normally would depress us or make us sad. It is a reactionary mechanism that we have used through the generations to survive and rightfully so! However, the issue is when you have such a great and talented actor such as Green (and Lauren Elliot as well who I’ll get to later) in a serious, dramatic, and heart-wrenching moment or scene and the audience can’t allow that moment to live without tarnishing it with displaced laughter! Amid the colorful language there WERE indeed some funny moments in Green’s performance, yet, there were other moments (language included) where the moments were meant to be sullen and sad. It was meant to make us think and reflect and hear what his character was REALLY saying. Still, with an audience who might not have recognized those said moments, Green gave one of the most remarkable performance I’ve EVER seen a male actor give on any stage in LA that I’ve been to! He never lost his character! He stood on that stage and made me forget I was in an audience of people, sitting in a theatre watching a play. His performance was so real and authentic that I felt like I was TRULY listening to some stranger pour his heart out to me in anger, confusion and longing. Tobyus Green’s performance was a Tony Award winning performance and that’s not me blowing smoke; that’s me telling it like it T-I-IS!
Daryl Brown and Randall Harris gave a good performance as coach Rick who had been sleeping with champion, teenage athlete, Owen’s, mother. Daryl Brown’s performance as the coach was solid. Nothing that really wowed me over the top but it was a clean and solid performance that allowed me to see that he, in fact, has skill. The script for his character is what jaunted me the most! Certain things that Rick had to say pertaining to Harris’ character like, “I’m not trying to be your father!” but yet you’re sleeping with his mother?! Those types of situations always hit close to home having been a child with a step parent who at one point wasn’t willing or ready to BE a parent. Obviously I have my own thoughts on that issue but this isn’t the place or time for that lol. Randall Harris gave a remarkable performance being that it was his first time on stage ever! He gave me the believability and real essence of a teenage boy whose relationship with his coach had changed and in turn put him in an awkward and uncomfortable position in his personal life. I can definitely see him growing and getting better and better at the craft of Acting. With his charming good looks (and being only 23) he should have a long and successful career.
I knew that she was the type of actor who could do ANYTHING but I had never seen her do demure! Donna Carroll Crockett gave a spectacular performance as perpetrating nun, Benita, who sought out revenge from the murderer of her husband and daughter. Her ability to stay so sweet and kind and seemingly docile was mesmerizing. Especially to go from such a soft and sweet demeanor to a harsh, angry and revengeful one in a manner of seconds! Crockett is one of the sweetest people you could ever have the pleasure of meeting but don’t let that ever make you think that she’s a one trick pony. She is a skilled talent who can light up any stage she’s on with just a wiggle of her pinky finger. Playing hard cased, sassy, cursing, prisoner, Priscilla, was the phenomenal, Malika Blessing. Malika definitely finds her home on the stage in any role that allows her to simply be herself with lots of personality and the freedom to explore beyond the proverbial box! She puts the FUN in FUNNY! Her one liners (whether written or improved) leave you gut-busting in your chair. Her delivery and comedic timing are simply enjoyable to experience. She truly is the female Jim Carry of LA Theatre! Orange Is The New Black Needs her like 2 seasons ago! I love to see her in her element and to pair her with such a talent as Crockett, well; awesomeness and amazingness are BOUND to be in effect!
King Orr plays budding (and broke) actor Brent. Orr’s was another solid performance. There was no wow factor about the performance but then again there was no wow factor about this particular story either. It was a conversational type story that every actor (especially in LA) can and probably has related to at some point in their careers; the illusion of being more than a success than you actually are so that your friends and family don’t hit you with the “I told you so” lines of disappointment. The menu of Top Roman noodles that affix any LA actor’s cabinets are yet another truth that so many have experienced. I applaud Orr for taking such a simple and regular story and still making it captivating enough to listen to and watch. It was a simple, short and real story that Orr played in just that way. Great choice!
Stephen Slates and Lorenzo Hunt play two very well to do brothers who find themselves arguing over two things that most families come to odds about when settling the estate of a passing loved one: Money! And how the other chooses to manage it! Hunt seems to have a natural niche for knowing what’s funny and just how far the funny should go. Playing older brother Orlando, whose goal is to fit in with the upper echelon of society no matter the cost or sacrifice, Hunt brought a natural realness to something I find most older brothers tend to do when speaking to their younger counterparts; the ideal of ‘I’m always right’ and the ideal of ‘I’m never wrong’. He aggravated me in his arguments against younger brother Rome, played by Slates, because of the lack of foresight to see that success has many pathways to it. As I’m sure that is exactly what the intended reaction for Hunt’s character to give to the audience was to be, the way he delivered it was fantastic. All in all Hunt was funny when he needed to be and gave a great performance. Slate held his own as young and free thinking (and free spending) Rome. There were a few moments between Hunt and Slates where I wish Slates had attacked the moment a little harder. I didn’t get, in completion, the believability of validity to Rome’s perspective toward his brother. None the less, Slates pulled off the suave, quick talking, ladies man that Rome, I’m sure, was written to be. The emotion Slates brought behind not wanting to sell their parents property seemed authentic and overshadowed the small moments of lackluster intensity that Slates had. Together these two great actors gave each other the perfect balance. Funny without being overdone, a brotherly relationship with its share of up’s and down’s, and two very distinct views on how life and success should and can be achieved. Great work fellas!
When it comes to the ladies of acting royalty there is Katherine Hepburn, Angela Bassett, Elaine Stritch, Phylicia Rashad, Angelina Jolie, Audra McDonald, Bernadette Peters and Lauren Elliot! Playing the sassy, sexy, sensational, seductive, and sultry Francine whose heart is broken when the man of her affair breaks their date (on her birthday no less) to take his wife to a concert promised to her; Elliot gave a performance worthy of an Emmy, a Tony, and an Oscar! I cannot, in human language, eloquently enough describe to you the amount of talent, work, skill, technique, development, and just raw, God-given anointing that emulates from this young woman! You don’t come across many people who can committedly and believeably play ANYTHING! Lauren Elliot CAN! She takes you on this journey of a young beautiful girl just looking for love but compromising herself for the sake of having a little piece of something rather than a whole lot of nothing. I was in complete awe watching Elliot transform, transcend, and quickly plummet to the proverbial ground as she emoted her characters confidence, sexiness, questioning, and inevitably her heartbreaking realization that while the man she loved meant everything to her, she was merely an option. Again, as with Tobyus Green, Elliot’s performance was interrupted by displaced laughter during moments of pure dramatic work; however, Elliot stayed committed, dedicated, and focused to deliver one of the most breath taking performances I have ever seen! If you’re a female actor coming up in this business I implore you to STUDY THIS WOMAN while she’s still reachable and available. Because I guarantee any stage she’s on is immediately going to turn into a Master Class on how to act!
Musically inclined teenager April, played by Rachel Harris, seemingly has nothing going on that would turn her into a spoiled, rebellious little brat. That is if you discount the death of her mother. Now forced to share her feelings and be evaluated by her appointed moderator Blair, played by Shawn McDonald, she seems to have a change of heart. Sister to actor Randall Harris, Rachel shares something with her brother outside of their DNA. The fact that she too had never been on stage prior to Life Stories; Harris was a natural on stage! She brought to life the stereotypical rebellious teenage girl that we all love to hate (and some want to slap). Her choices were perfect and like her brother I see a very long and successful career ahead; contingent, of course, on honing her craft. McDonald was the perfect selection for Blair, giving his character a much needed stern and fatherly demeanor to contrast Harris’ more out spoken and robust persona. Their chemistry was quite satisfying.
The story of a father who abandons his son only to move on and create a new family and do for them more than what he did for the first is not an uncommon story. The tensions rise, however, when said father is the minister of his own church and his abandoned son comes looking for answers that he can’t really give. Marvin Gay was exceptional as Pastor Marvin! It was easy to see the skill and work that this man has put into his craft throughout his career. He did exactly what his character was supposed to do to an audience member. Piss us off! Yet and still make us think and wonder, “Why can’t you tell your son the truth? What are you hiding or protecting him from?” Jenson Jimerson’s portrayal of Martin was real and well played. I will say it took me a minute to warm up to Jimerson as I’m not necessarily used to seeing him in this type of role but he portrayed a hurting son longing for his father with every emotion that a grown man in reality would feel and go through. Add the tears on his face at the end of his scene and we were all DONE!
When you have a talent to do something well it is so easy to live in mediocrity simply because your mediocre is others greatness! If you’re a caliber 10 performing to a caliber 1 it’s easy to live in caliber 5 and still wow your audience. Don B. Welch pushed the limits with this show as a writer to ensure that he did not rest on the laurels of his past successes but that his audience received something fresh, new, relevant and astonishingly great! I applaud him for pushing the limits of conversation, the limits of himself and for giving a platform to a new and fresh set of faces to this industry! If you missed this show you not only missed history in the making but a phenomenal stage play! Congrats to Don B. Welch, cast and crew for a homerun of a performance!