Debbie Allen’s Freeze Frame…Stop the Madness at The Kennedy Center (review)

Debbie Allen’s Freeze Frame…Stop the Madness is a multi-media show about gun violence at the hands of cops/authority figures. Dance is its beating heart. Which is good. Because the dialogue isn’t always great, the music is sometimes flat, and the video footage often distracting. That said, Freeze Frame has a lot to offer a viewer, especially in terms of message and starting a dialogue through art about the violence begot by cops and lone gunmen bent on destroying the good with their hate.

One night, a kid named Jimmy robs a convenience store. The cops pursue as he ducks into the neighborhood bloc party. Then, a shot rings out and the stage freezes as time rewinds to show us how all those people came to be at that exact moment—both the place and the mindset.

While the stage is pretty simple—a single large, winding staircase and a huge film screen spanning the length of it. Its scale is important. Because when in use, it often dwarfs the performance, detracting from the dance or drawing your eye up and away. This happens, in particular, when the film is of people mimicking those on stage or people acting out scenarios.

Debbie Allen's Freeze Frame - Stop the Madness. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center

Debbie Allen’s Freeze Frame – Stop the Madness. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center

The use of video is least successful, though, when there are multiple, simultaneous ongoings about the stage. Like, in “Church” when a dance troupe, a soul choir, and a preacherare  shouting praise to Jesus. And, there in the background is that screen projecting a 15’ preacher right behind the 6’ foot flesh-and-blood preacher. The chaos is headache inducing. My eyes didn’t know where to focus, and without being able to hone in, I had a hard time determining the meaning.

But, when the screen or film visuals do enhance the performers and dances, it’s quite powerful, such as during “Colors” and “The Quiet Man” where graffiti artist Eleo (Hunter Krikac) pops and locks and flows as a beautiful mural forms behind him on screen as if he is painting it with his motions. His striking performance is nuanced and interspersed with sign language in one of the most creative blends of dance and (actual) body language.

Debbie Allen lends weight to this sequence as Rosana, Eleo’s grandmother who narrates for the deaf Eleo. She also provides some needed levity.

Debbie Allen's Freeze Frame - Stop the Madness. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center

Debbie Allen’s Freeze Frame – Stop the Madness. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center

Similarly, “Don’t Say No” features a backdrop of kids’ drawings—blue skies and birds—scrolling by as Ali (Philip Solomon), Luke (Luke Smith), and Da Ni (Ryan Phuong), kids themselves, comfort their female friend Kayla (Alijah Kai), who has been called too ugly for Justin Bieber to date. The drawings set the scene and dance lazily from left to right, flowing like a languid stream. The boys possess swoon-worthy swagger and charm as they vie for Kayla’s affection, and Phuong easily cements himself as the show’s star.

Debbie Allen's Freeze Frame - Stop the Madness. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center

Debbie Allen’s Freeze Frame – Stop the Madness. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center

“The One” is a tap-dancing homage to the past—both the lasting cultural influences of mainland Africa and those individuals that built a foundation not only for hip hop but for a better, more peaceful world. Black and white photos of Count Basie, Dorothy Dandridge, Michael Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr, and President Kennedy flash across the screen as Cathy (Cathie Nicholas) pounds away, easily earning the most boisterous applause of the night. But just before this number, my seat-mate appeared to be dozing. Which, to me, said that more, more, and more (more people, more dancers, more activities, more visual aids) doesn’t always equal dynamic.

Enter, the monologues, which in and of themselves as standalone pieces are pretty good. Moon (Mathew Johnson), a rich preacher’s kid who raps and has elected to go to public school, gives a couple of interesting diatribes, as does Jimmy (William Wingfield) and Slick (Dion Watson). Wingfield is disturbing as he tells the audience “No, no, no” during “The Collector Monologue” before detailing how he’s been told this his whole life, even in times of trouble when a simple yes could have made all the difference. Watson in his “Am I in a Gang?” monologue is funny, even as he details being a kid surrounded by bloods and crypts and cops without compassion.

But Vivian Nixon as Eartha delivers the most stirring monologue (“Ain’t Nuthin’ Easy About It”)—about her mother becoming addicted to heroin—and is easily the best actress in the cast. “Because of where I live and how I look, they think I’m easy,” she says before detailing how her mom had her at 13, and her mom had her at 12.

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freeze-frame-show
Debbie Allen’s Freeze Frame … Stop the Madness
3stars
closes October 30, 2016
Details and tickets
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Her ballet—in “Butterflies”—is equally remarkable. No video or glaring backdrop to lessen the simple grace of her movements and lifts (with assists from Sherrod Tate, and Brandon O’Neal). The softness of this number balances all the heavy hitting of the rap, hip hop, and tap. The slowdown was perfection.

Yet, despite emotion-rich monologues and often caustic (in a good way) dance routines that inspire elation, anger, fear, and hope, the narrative thread that ties the characters as a community is tenuous. Freeze Frame doesn’t bill itself as a play or musical (it calls itself a theatrical performance “told in a fusion of drama, music, dance, video projection, and art”), but it is telling the story of one binding tragedy that, as Moon says, destroys a community.

The ending is impactful and does manage to succeed in creating a shock-and-awe moment, largely thanks to the enduring presence of Watson, Nixon, and Phuong, whose characters reach beyond color, education, age, or background to connect to the humanity in everyone. And, while Freeze Frame emphasizes the black experience, the perspective of the cop is not ignored nor are the tragedies of Sandy Hook Elementary School and Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, among others. They show-up in the lyrics, dialogue, or during the scroll of the names of the dead at the end, helping to broaden the overall message that gun violence—by anyone against anyone—is intolerable.

This message carries enough weight—especially during some of the simplest, yet most powerful monologues—without needing to be pounded by a plethora of mediums running in tandem on stage. Dance is the star here, and with paired down visuals in a few spots and tighter character-to-character connection, Freeze Frame could really be a knock-out.

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Debbie Allen’s Freeze Frame…Stop the Madness . Written, directed, and choreographed by Debbie Allen. Featuring Clinton Derricks, Mathew Johnson, Vivian Nixon, Dion Watson, Debbie Allen, William Wingfield, Olivia-Diane Joseph, Alijah Kai, Hunter Krikac, Chase Maxwell, Donnie Gipson, Ryan Phuong, Eartha Robinson, Andrew Blake Ames, Ava Bokelberg, B’Jon Carter Burnell, Karlito Cineas, Guvpo Clarke, Claythan Connerly, Emily Crouch, Alaman Diadhiou, Nicholas Gilligan, Elija M. Hall, Eva Hefner, Adama Ideozu, Jennifer Locke, Alex Malachi Middleton, Cathie Nicholas, Brandon O’Neal, Justin Porter, Kayden Porter, Raymond Reeder, Luke Smith, Philip Solomon, Sherrod Tate Jr. Original Score by Rickey Minor, Lenny Wee, Thump, James Ingram, Tena Clark, Wally Minko, Arturo Sandoval, Debbie Allen, and Stevie Wonder. Production: Michael Scott-Michael (Set Design); Roselee Showe (Costume Design); John Rayment (Lighting Design); Rickey Minor (Musical Director); John Simmons, ASC (Cinematographer); Mic Gruchy (Video Design); John Valdez (Mural Artwork); Elizabeth Gatsby (Associate Production Designer); Terry Beeman, Chantel Heath, and Dion Watson (Associate Choreographers), David Blackwell (Stage Manager), James Ingram, Debbie Allen, Infrared Ink, and Angel Hart (Vocal Arrangements), Cathie Nicholas (Assistant Director), Eric Butler (Vocal Director), Theo Love (Editor), Elizabeth Gadsby (Children’s Artwork), Major King III (Managing Producer) and Norman Nixon (Executive Producer). Presented by The Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.

Kelly McCorkendale About Kelly McCorkendale

Kelly McCorkendale is a dog-lover, avid quilter, and occassional creative writer who loves the color orange and boycotts cable (except “Game of Thrones” because, well, what if winter is coming!?). After college, she realized poets weren’t in demand, so she shipped off to Madagascar with Peace Corps. Since then, she’s found a niche working on health systems in Africa but has a long-list of life tasks yet to be fulfilled–such as perform blackmail, learn a trade, and become a competitive eater. She has an MA in International Education, believes rice is the elixir of life, and, in high school, won the best supporting actress honor for the state of Missouri. She may also recite poetry (her first love) when imbibing in alcohol.

Comments

  1. Kelly
    Thank you for sharing this review with yoiur readers. Really enlightening. A few good lessons to be considered. interested to share with you a project being developed here in Miami with two high schools – an updated adaptation of Romeo and Juiliet, “The R+J Effect” featuring guns not swords. Was interested to see Ms. Allen’s approach to exploring gun violence through the transformative power of the performing arts..We too have a similar mission – to help reduce gun violence through the arts We are also integrating video as part of our scenography but the majority of the project will be performed in “transparent light” with audience and performers sharing equal attention in which theatrical lighting will be absent. We are hoping eventually to bring our project to Washington DC amongst other communities that have been impacted by gun violence. In collaboration with school districts and police departments all of which becomes interactive and central to the performance itself.bringing about dialogue between community youth and law enforcement – during the course of the play’s action through freeze frames. Yes – I know it was indeed strange to see Ms. Allen’s show concept. We were unawre of the production until I opened up the kennedy Center website. Would you be interested in knowing more and if so Is there an email I could send material?

    Many thanks for your attention to this inquiry. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

    Phillip M Church
    Associate Professor
    Department of Theater
    Florida International University
    &
    Artistic Director
    What if Works Inc.
    http://www.whatifworks.com

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