Saturday, April 6, 2013

Voices by Les Wieder

L -R Inda Craig-Galván, Dave Rosenberg

By Joe Straw 

The role of race today is less than in the past when segregation and discrimination were legal. Now the role of race is more covert and hidden but still has consequences for the lives of individuals. African Americans are affected in educational, work, housing, and legal systems. For example, researchers have shown that black young men are less like to be hired than white young men with the same credentials. African Americans are more aware of racism and discrimination since they are the targets of it and witness it on a regular basis. In contrast, Whites perceive less racism since they do not experience it directly. Whites can be allies of Blacks when they recognize the role of race in the daily lives of African Americans. – Vilma Ortiz, Ph.D.

I read a wonderful book many years ago and, every time I think about it, I want to read the few pages leading up to this passage.  And it gets me every time.

“Let me tell you something:  I am a man.  A sob hit me somewhere around my ankles; it came surging upward, and flinging my hands over my face, I was just bawling, as I hadn’t since I was a baby.   “Meester Kinte!”  I just felt like I was weeping for all of history’s incredible atrocities against fellowmen, which seems to be mankind’s greatest flaw…” – Alex Haley  - Roots The Saga of an American Family

I have a couple of pet peeves.  Okay, well, not a couple, probably thousands.  But, one is theatre starting late and two is actors using microphones in small intimate theaters.

So we arrived at the Griot Theatre on the campus of Bethel Lutheran Church (and school) in Encino (a lovely campus by the way with plenty of free parking) and wait, and wait, and wait for the doors to open.

“It’s 8:07, why haven’t they opened the doors.” – I grumbled.

There was a slight technical glitch. 

One of the main objectives of Griot Theatre of West Valley is to provide a theatrical experience for the deaf and hard of hearing with the use of captioning, sign language interpretation, and/or “hearing loop” technology. 

On this night, they had a difficult time coordinating the captioning projected on a wide screen set up for those hard of hearing or those with cochlear implants.

Now, I feel bad.

“This theatre is looped for audience members wearing hearing aids with T-coils and Cochlear Implants.” – A note in the program

Griot Theatre of the West Valley presents Voices by Les Wieder and directed by Malik B. El Amin is an enjoyable night of passion, determination, and love.  It was my pleasure to witness Voices, this tiny adventure, in an intimate 40-seat theatre in the round.

Griot, pronounced GREE-oh, refers to a tribal oral historian. And griots take their jobs very seriously and throughout the night we were treated to many stories by griots, in this case, former slaves.

Theatregoers do not get many opportunities to have actors, a fingertip away, performing marvelously and in private tones that revive and awakens the senses.  No need to pull up a seat and listen, you’re already there listening to the intimate moments of their lives.  

The stage, by Set Designer Terrell Rodefer, is on a riser approximately 4 inches above the floor and the story telling usually happens in the area surrounding the stage, which have the actors almost in your lap.

Lena (Inda Craig-Galván) is a playwright who is working on her latest play entitled “Voices”.  She has been listening and reading recordings of former slaves from the Library of Congress and working to put their stories into the play.

Lena receives a call from David (Dave Rosenberg) on her message machine telling her that he can’t make it tonight.  She’s slightly disappointed but it’s just as well because she must finish her play.  

But it’s just not working. Lena is distracted from writing because she is in love, a love with a lot of conflict, mostly with her family.   The evidence is there on the floor, the wad up pieces of paper, wads of unsuccessful story ideas that litter her floor.

L - R Inda Craig-Galván, Danielle Lewis 

Val (Danielle Lewis), a flight attendant, swishes her way into the home she occasionally shares with Lena and declares the place a tragedy.  Val takes off her airline hostess uniform jackets, pulls the shirt from his skirt, slides into her slippers, pours them both a drink, and makes herself mighty comfortable.

Val lets Lena in about her romantic escapades in Rome and Italian men.

Not to be undone, Lena tells Val that she has met someone.

“He’s very nice, educated, but white.” – Lena

“What about your daddy?” – Val

Lena replies that Daddy (Thomas Silcott), Rev. Ezzra Walker, doesn’t like it. When they got together at a Thanksgiving dinner at his home, things seem to go pretty well until David called the Reverend a racist.  Since then Rev. Ezzra Walker and Lena haven’t spoken and we are well into the summer months.

Val wants to know the details of their relationship, how they met, etc., and we travel back to their meeting after a performance of one of her shows.

Hesitant at first David approaches Lena.

“I’ve seen your plays.  I teach them at the university.  You’re a big talent.” – David

“I don’t date white guys.” – Lena

But David is, politely speaking, determined, and calls every night until Lena says yes.  Still, it is not a date.

David thinks Lena has got something against white guys but Lena tell him that she dated a white guy in high school.

“We are not going anywhere.” – Lena

“Tough broad.” – David

“…I usually get tough bitch… If I do this, my life will be hell. -  Lena

“…Bullsh*t, I’m a great catch.” – David

Voices has a marvelous cast and one can’t help but be touched by the stories and the sheer determination of two people in love.   All in all, it was a wonderful night of theatre.

Inda Craig-Galván as Lena finds love in all the white places.  She is determined to have a career as a playwright, or at least get the one that she is working on, finished. Love keeps getting in the way and it’s probably the reason it is not getting done. But writers need other voices, which is probably why she has a roommate and even bothers to see someone who may give her inspiration. Craig-Galván’s work was exceptional but the reasons why others members in the cast give to her journey needs to be absorbed.

Dave Rosenberg is the white boyfriend, David. He is slight in build, hair receding and sticking straight up on top of his forehead. He had this gruff manner (possibly the character’s NY background) in the way he spoke and the way he approached love.   Off centered and with a slight edge, he had a dogged determination that was inspiring and left a lot of audience members in tears.  It was a wonderful performance.

Danielle Lewis is delightful as Val the worldly airline hostess and roommate.   Although she is gone most of the time she seems to be in the middle of everything taking the initiative of being the spoke in the wheel of life:  her roommate, the boyfriend, and the father.  She swishes from one point of the room to the next, every action specific, and every intention has its dramatic flair.   It is wonderful work.

L - R,  RJ Farrington, Sharyn Michelle, Thomas Silcott

Thomas Silcott plays the Reverend Ezzra Walker, strong and steadfast, and not too proud a parent at the moment.  He has a little problem with his daughter mixed up with a white man.  Silcott also plays Old Thomas Steele, and Mars Brooks, which are just marvelous roles.  There is simplicity in Silcott’s work that showcases his mastery of the craft.  No movement is wasted, his choices are creative, his acting sublime, and his stories are inspiring.  Run to see his performance. 

RJ Farrington has a number of different roles: Ellie Matthews, Delia Rose, Shad Cooke, Mary Finny, Matha Coolidge and Delsa Frome. Each role was handled with care, slightly different, and readily absorbable.

Sharyn Michelle also play a number of roles: Chancy Makke, Rose Stewart, Sally Fry, Hatie Williams, Bessie Lock, and Alice Mae Mason and was also very entertaining.

Les Wieder wrote a good script. But he fails to provide David with these words: “I understand what it means to be black in society.  I understand you’re going to face racism and you will need me as your ally to support you through these things.”  Instead he just says, “I love you” with the expectation that will solve their problems.  So their relationship seemed to be a dead end at the end of the play.  Not something I need when leaving the theatre.   Also the slaves stories displayed in their magnificent glory, and in ghostly apparitions, did not move the plot along, wasn’t specific to the action and the intentions of the characters working out their lives on stage in current time.  Still, I loved this show for numerous reasons, despite my grumbling or musings.

Malik B. El-Amin, the director, Artistic Director, and Co-Founder has a magnificent eye and ear for the truth and there are a lot of wonderful things in this production.  I’ve been hearing some wonderful things about Griot and it was a pleasure to witness this productions and El-Amin’s work.

Wonderfully produced by Sabah El-Amin.

Costume Designer Pat Payne dresses the former slaves in white costumes with a shear angelic covering around them and the Lighting Designer Erin J. Anderson highlights those angelic features.

Other members of this fabulous crew are as follows:

Libya A El-Amin – Sound Editor
Jerry A. Blackburn – Stage Manager
Jade Cagalawan – Assistant Stage Manager
Rebecca Turtledove – Dramaturg
Peppur Chambers – Casting Director (fantastic job!)
Nora Feldman – Public Relations
Mary Rappazzo – Graphic Designer
Leticia Rey - Photography

Run and take a friend who believes that if you are an American you should speak “Americanise”.  Maybe this show will change that person’s perspective.

Reservations:  818-703-7170

Bethel Encino
17500 Burbank Blvd.
Encino, CA  91316

If you want to listen to stories of former slaves at The Library of Congress please visit:


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