Thoughts on Center Stage’s 50th anniversary season

Center Stage announced its upcoming 50th season on Friday, March 30th at Case[werks], a gallery across from Baltimore’s Penn Station.

Kwame Kwei-Armah (Photo: courtesy of Center Stage)

The first season selected by new Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah seems to bear out his stated desire to spark conversation and to add new scripts to the repertory. Two of the plays are getting world premieres, and two others opened in the past two years. Neither is Kwame using his new job as an excuse for slacking off  as a writer or director. He’s written one of the plays, and will be directing two productions.

Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, directed by Kwame, qualifies as a classic, though it is bound to feel topical when it opens in September. By then, the general election will be in full swing, complete with freakishly negative Super-Pac powered advertising and howling appeals to the worst instincts in all of us. Presumably, a few hours with Dr. Thomas Stockmann will be a welcome antidote.

That will be followed by Stephen Thorne’s The Completely Fictional – Utterly True – Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe. This will be local in two respects. First off, it deals with the death of Poe, Baltimore’s most famous (or infamous) contribution to American Literary History. Kwame is making good here on his promise to hire area actors: the production will star Bruce Nelson, a local favorite who shuttles between Baltimore and DC. Poe impersonations, complete with wild-eyed incantations of “The Raven,” are not new to Baltimore but this should take the Poe myth to a higher level.

Albee’s A Delicate Balance, with its scabrous deconstruction of the Golden Years, could be directed toward the aging Boomer population. About a decade ago, the Everyman came up with an excellent production starring Bill Hamlin. Tony award winning director Mark Lamos could raise the bar even higher.

That will be followed by The Mountaintop, Katori Hall’s treatment of Martin Luther King on the night before his assassination. It begins as he walks into his Memphis motel room after delivering his “mountaintop” speech. The play premiered in London in 2009, and opened on Broadway in 2011 where it ran for five months.  

Thirty-one year old Marisa Wegrzyn was winner of the 2009 Wasserstein Prize and her latest efforts include Ten Cent Night and Killing Women  [being given a DC production by Pinky Swear later this month.]  Mud Blue Sky received a reading at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, and is described: ”In a nondescript hotel room near O’Hare Airport, three flight attendants and an unlikely fourth companion poise on the brink of looking back and moving ahead.”

The Raisin Cycle, in rotating repertory continues the ‘conversation’ theme. The two plays, Clybourne Park  by Bruce Norris and Beneatha’s Place by Kwame Kwei-Armah are responses to Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun. Derrick Sanders directs them both. My own experience with his work was a mesmerizing version of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone produced at Center Stage in 2007. The original Raisin, which debuted in 1959, featured an African American family dealing with restrictive racial covenants. Clybourne Park fast forwards forty years into the era of gentrification. The world premiere of Kwame’s Beneatha’s Place will be his response to both plays.

To commemorate their 50th anniversary, Center Stage has commissioned 50 monologues from 50 American writers. Centering on the 2012 election, the two- to three- minute monologues explore the questions “Where is my America?”  ”What is my America?” and will be written and performed by, among others, Lynn Nottage, Eric Overmyer, Paula Vogel, Naomi Wallace, Lee Blessing, Christopher Durang, Neil LaBute and Anna Deveare Smith. The short monologues will be shown in the lobby during the opening weekend of Enemy of the People.

Tickets are not yet on sale for the 2012-2013 season. More details here.

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