As a theater artist, especially as a director and producer, I try and foster as much transparency as I can in the effort on being honest with the people I interact with and being honest with myself, so first a preface: my mind is in a million places. It is one part “being around such wonderful theater energy for ten straight hours”, one part “waking up for my morning job after all that energy”, one part “received a very concerning email from my Fringe producer about the future of our show”, and one part “personal drama”.
I originally wrote this preface as an apology, but I realize I shouldn’t apologize for life affecting me. In fact, some show I saw on August 5th hit me in a particular way because of where I am in my life, and that is an awesome thing to be aware of. It reminds me of why I love the performing arts and how happy I am that I find myself within this arts community.
First, some thoughts about this year’s Fringe in general. It feels different to me - new venues. Some venues coming back that weren’t in the rotation for a while, the loss of Uptown and particularly the gorgeous Intermedia Arts. This hasn’t deterred from the excitement of running to a venue, grabbing your wooden nickel, and sitting to hear Joy Dolo’s voice before the lights go up. There is one thing that has gotten under my skin though - the content search. This year we were given eight categories that we could search for that are outside the scope of genre. As a bisexual black man in Minnesota, I feel often the dearth of seeing “me” on stage, and yes, I am aware of companies like Penumbra and Gadfly, so I am indeed looking. I was delighted to see that I could find what shows contained LGBTQ+ content but was very confused and to a certain degree hurt when I saw there was no way I could search which shows contained artists of color. I am curious to wonder why this was excluded from the criteria and in the spirit of being transparent, I cannot think of a reason that will make me feel better or understanding of this oversight. I will not speculate as to these reasons, but I do ask that if anyone from the Fringe team is reading this, please bring this search function back.
Now, onto August 5th! The first Sunday of Fringe is traditionally one of the big days to see shows. Many have opened, many are opening, and people are starting to really listen to the buzz of what to see and what not to see. I was fortunate enough to be joined by my friend and past collaborator Jamila Joiner for the day and we started off with a bang. First show, 1pm, Gunplay!, created by Tom Reed.
The show description states, “Set in the absurd alternate reality of America in 2018, this satire follows an attempt to stage a gun lobby group’s “hip, fun!” musical active shooter drill with high school theater students.” As someone who has been working with Tom Reed and literally sits next to him in the dressing room at The Brave New Workshop, I am always excited to see what he cooks up outside of the Hennepin-based theater. This show highlights the strength of Tom Reed’s writing skills and is an example of how satire can comment, make you laugh, make you cringe, and applaud at the end. As the only all white-presenting show I saw this day, I was delighted that it was called out through a very clever Othello joke. I felt myself drawn in by the whole cast with overall bright performances that showed dedication to bringing this potentially tricky show to light. Adelin Phelps and Tom Reed made for a weird and delightful duo that felt familiar and new at the same time. I do believe that there were some stage pictures that could have been tweaked ever so slightly to guarantee that everyone who needed to be seen was seen by the whole audience, but this comes from the fact that I felt everyone was just that important to be seen. Highly recommend.
During the 2:30 slot, I took a break with some friends and went to the Republic. As a known “overplanner” I decided this year that I would not see a show before my show was slated. I have been learning more and more that giving yourself time to see friends, read for fun, nap, or even just sitting down doing nothing can feel like radical arts of self-love. As a young artist, sometimes I think the only way to feel comfortable is if I am constantly working and that is not sustainable in the long run. So, this break, getting to chat with people I love and wish I could see more of, getting fries and cheese curds, borrowing a compact to put on some eyeliner in prep for the show - I felt centered and a part of it all. As artists, sometimes we get so lost in our own work, and I am always grateful for Fringe to provide a tight artist-per-square-foot ratio to remind me of the power of community. The perfect reset before performing in The Breakfast Club: The Musical at 4pm.
I must admit that this reflection has taken longer to write because I keep clicking into my email to see what is happening with the future of my show. I wonder if at the end of this, will I have news for you readers if you can see this wonderful show or not? I think why this show is affecting me so much is because of the relationships that have come out of it, and fully aware of how cheesy this is, we had a Breakfast Club-like arc ourselves. There was no weed or hickies but a lot of us hadn’t had the chance to work together, and now, I am just itching for the next chance to work with them all again. Two of our team are moving to Chicago soon and one has to go back to school in California in a few weeks and damn it, I’m going to miss them. When Jon Pumper, music director of The Brave New Workshop, and I had to dash from opening night of our Fringe show to make it to our Workshop show, we were delighted to have a bunch of the cast come see us at the Workshop. Sometimes, as artists, we do a show, and we finish it, add it to our resume and that is that. This team, however, has felt like a family, and no matter what happens, I have felt the spirit of the Fringe Festival the most with this team.
We loaded in, we tinkered with some sound cues, and performed to an almost sold out Southern Theater. When we got to that final fist bump, I felt the joy that made me become a theater artist again.
This was then met with a quick load out and a sprint to Mixed Blood for the 5:30 show, Not Fair, My Lady.
This show was everything to me. The staging and use of the space, the lighting, props, sound, and more gave the perfect frame for these talented performers and writers to deliver the most beautiful middle finger to the theater industry. The show description reads, “Not Fair, My Lady! is an all-woman, company-created musical theatre parody review! It's 2018 and misogyny is alive and well on Broadway. And in the world. Everywhere. Let's...sing about it! Shit.” To take a critical look at the truth at what is happening, to unapologetically call out people who decide that “pretty music” is better than portraying one dimensional and harmful troupes of women, what it is like to audition for these limited roles, and highlighting the further complexities of being a woman of color in the field made this show one I thought about for the rest of the day. Everyone should see this show, especially producers of Old Log, Lyric Arts, the Guthrie, and anyone else who decided that Minnesota should showcase Guys and Dolls for the entirety of 2018 and 2019. Buy your reservations now because it sold out on Sunday. Highly recommend. Fortunately, no running was needed for the next show of the day, because we already had our reservations for the intimate Have You Seen This Girl at 7pm, which met behind the Hard Times Cafe.
“I wanted to do more” was one of the things my friend Jamila said after the show and I think it really captures the blend of feelings that I had throughout the show. The show description reads, “16 year old Annie Parks left for school on May 3rd and didn't come home that evening. Join us as we visit popular spots for runaways on the West Bank to find her and bring her safely home.” Ariel Leaf immediately started off the show blurring the line between performance and reality as we engaged on our walk-and-search for Annie Parks, this became both intriguing and nerve wracking. I know a friend in the show, Kira Pontiff, so when we approached her I had the inside scoop, but as we walked from location to location, I was on the hunt for who we were going to talk to next, a face that may have something to say. And it clicked for me - if I were looking for a runaway, that is exactly what I would be doing. We were instructed not to be aggressive with anyone we speak with and to only let our guide, Ariel, speak to the people we approached - an excellent way to keep the story narrative within your control. I felt like I learned from this show in a way I haven’t before, and the end of the show really does leave you with the feeling to do more - at least in that moment. Get your reservations because it is 20 people per show. Jamila and I continued our walk to the Augsburg campus for Rejection at 8:30pm.
Rejection was a show that hit me in a very specific way and watching an interracial queer couple discuss what love and being in love means to them felt like the writer had been watching me for the past few weeks. The sheer normalization of this couple throughout the show really made me felt seen in a way I don’t always feel when I see shows that tackle these things. I am fully aware of my struggles as a black man in America, as a queer man in America, and as a black queer man in America, yet I am more than that and many of my joys and pains are not directly tied to these identity politics. For as much as I loved the context behind the show, I wish it had the framework to support it. Staging felt off and my eye was often drawn to things I later realized it shouldn’t. Toward the middle of the show, there was a character that was utilized in an interesting way that I wished was more fully realized throughout the show. Non-committal lighting and clunky transitions kept taking me out of the world that I so much wanted to stay in. There is much praise to be given to this team of actors, all young and with a last-minute actor swap, brought charm and charisma to the show. I think this show addresses topics of love that most people in relationships are afraid to and that is the reason to see it. With the sun set, we made our way to the Southern Theater for Midwestworld at 10pm
There was a delay to the start of the show due to some technical issues, but through the creativity of the Fringe volunteer that night, telling us about it in a robotic voice and posture, I was none the wiser till after the show. If I could vote for someone who deserved the Fringe Medal of Awesome, it would go to this individual. Ending my evening with this show made perfect sense to me - this company is known for doing either a mashup of Shakespeare with an animated show I binged as a kid or some of the most experimental work I get to see at Fringe. Midwestworldwas in the latter category and between questioning what was really happening, which I hear is in the vein of the hit HBO show, clever computer culture references, and props littering the stage, this company toys with the cookie-cutter way we usually enjoy theater and that’s why I keep coming back to them. Fringe is a great opportunity to take an adventure, and for some people that is putting up a well-polished product, others exploring the topics they wish theaters were focusing on, and for some, it is testing our ability to grow as an audience to different kind of experiences and making us click the captcha box that says, “I am not a theater android”.
And then I went home and slept. Hard.
As of this moment, we are more hopeful that we may get to do the show, but no certain call has been made. But Denzel, why keeps all of this stuff? Shouldn’t you just write something and edit it later? Stick to just the shows I argue that we must bring more humanity into how we see and review theater. Remember that a reviewer is a person and has their own mindset that may or may not align with yours. Remember that theater companies are made of people and while we must stay critical of them in our review, our mindset going into every production should be, “I want them to succeed.” If those of us who choose to review shows go into our work with negativity, we are informing our audiences that they should too. I root for artists who decided to take on Fringe. I root for myself as an act of self-love, and I root for you, dear reader. Thank you for reading and staying curious about theater and Minnesota Fringe