By Renée S. Gordon
Much of the history of theater is open to scholarly debate. One of the things we know for certain is that as long as mankind has been in existence there has been some form of entertainment. Cave paintings attest to the fact that tales of hunting were related to prehistoric man, with visuals, during those long family evenings around a cozy fire. The origins of modern theater are based in this storytelling tradition as leaders and priests emerged as “stars” in the telling of such tales. The oldest document that references the theater is a 4,000-year old Egyptian stone tablet. It describes a passion play that was performed in Abydos on the banks of the Nile.
Existing records of Ancient Greek theater tell us that a chorus and leader originally chanted early productions. In the 6th century, Thespis, who was either an actor or a priest, introduced the individual actor into performances. Thespis, in 534 BC Athens, is the first documented winner of an acting award, a really early forerunner of the Oscar, and in recognition of his contributions actors continue to be known as thespians. Aeschylus is credited with introducing a second actor into his plays and Sophocles added a third.
Interestingly, the church banned theater after the fall of the Roman Empire but was also responsible for keeping it alive through its perpetual re-enactments during festivals and religious holidays of passion, morality and miracle plays. These re-enactments of Bible events were originally performed inside the church but because of their popularity began being held outdoors where many continue to be held today.
Virginia lays claim to being the first place in North America to stage a production. A brief mention in colonial Virginia records in 1665 states that a group of players were brought into court. An early professional production appears to have been in 1752 when a theater troupe came from London to perform “The Merchant of Venice” in Williamsburg.
Broadway began as an Algonquin trail, Wiechquaekeck, that ran north from the river all the way upstate. The theater district is situated in midtown and is roughly bounded by 44th and 54th Streets and 6th and 9th Avenues. Most theaters are located on the side streets and only four are actually on Broadway. The area gained the nickname “the Great White Way” because theater owners early on lit their marquees with glowing white bulbs and since the early 18th-century Broadway has been synonymous with the best theatrical productions in the world.
Philadelphians are fortunate in that they are a mere 90-miles from Manhattan and there are a variety of inexpensive ways to get there. Driving can be cost effective if there are two or more people to share the cost and parking discounts are available online at www.nyc.centralparking.com Amtrak runs several trains daily and Greyhound, with a 3 day advance purchase, can be as little as $12.00 each way.
There are new productions that should not be missed and a slew of old favorites that are now more affordable through discounts and promotions. Here is a list of what I consider the best current productions as well as those that are coming, with a few old favorites you might want to revisit or see for the first time.
PHOTO: Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis, in a scene from “Porgy and Bess.”
“Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” has a long and storied history. Edwin DuBose Heyward wrote “Porgy,” a short novel, in 1924. It was based on his observations of and interactions with black people who lived in coastal South Carolina and an actual event in which a cripple committed a murder for love. Heyward set his story on Catfish Row, in a tenement in an all black area in Charleston. Porgy is loosely based on the real “Goat Sammy,” whose inability to walk forced him to ride around in a goat cart. In 1934, the Gershwins and Heyward collaborated on an operatic version of the story and on September 30, 1935 it premiered in Boston.
The current production opened in the Richard Rogers Theater in December 2011 and closes June 24, 2012. The play has been shortened but all the songs we know and love have been retained. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks has contributed to script enhancements and David Alan Grier and Audra McDonald give stellar performances, as do all the other members of the cast. “Porgy and Bess” was highly anticipated and it was well worth the wait. www.porgyandbessonbroadway.com
PHOTO: David Alan Grier and the “Porgy and Bess” ensemble.
Alicia Keys is presenting, and composed the musical interludes for, “Stick Fly.” The play is currently running at the Cort Theater, www.stickflybroadway.com, with a dream cast that consists of Dulé Hill, Mekhi Phifer, Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Traci Thomas. The drama takes place over a weekend on Martha’s Vineyard. This is a masterful telling of how a dysfunctional family manages to function and even thrive on some levels. All the small lies are revealed that lead to greater truths and the audience is swept along for the ride.
The longest running play on Broadway is “Phantom of the Opera” and it has held up well through the years. Some critics say that it is all dazzle and little substance but what is wrong with a little razzle dazzle every once in a while. Everyone knows this story of seriously unrequited love, maimed man loves beautiful woman who loves handsome man. We all know where this is going but we can be awed by the telling. www.phantombroadway.com
“Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark” is still flying through the air at Foxwoods Theater. The story is essentially the same one told in the movie but most theatergoers already know the plot, the swings the thing. Tickets are still pricey but if you purchase them in advance you can get a less costly one. www.spidermanonbroadway.com
Whoopi Goldberg is presenting “Sister Act” at the Broadway Theater. I must admit that I have not seen this but everyone I know that has says it is outstanding. Deep discount tickets are available at several online sites. www.sisteractbroadway.com
One of my all-time favorite plays is “Black Angels Over Tuskegee” written by Layon Gray and performed by the Black Gents. This finely crafted play details the trials of a small group of men who are hoping to become
Tuskegee Airmen. It covers the period from their entrance exam to combat in the German skies. It is not unusual to see strong men weep at play’s end. Please see this off-Broadway drama. www.blackangelsovertuskegee.com
“A Streetcar Named Desire” is to open soon at the Broadhurst. The cast is multi-racial and is led by Blair Underwood in the starring role of Stanley Kowalski and Daphne Rubin-Vega as Stella Kowalski. Terence Blanchard is credited with composing music for the production.
The much-lauded Roberto Clemente’s life story has been crafted into a bi-lingual musical called “DC-7, The Roberto Clemente Story.” Clemente’s widow, his brother and a journalist reminisce at his funeral. Within this framework we follow him from his youth in Puerto Rico through his legendary career. The play opens on February 14th at the 47th Street Theater.
“Lost on the Natchez Trace” opens on February 3rd at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre.
The intriguing premise of the play is a meeting between an accidentally disabled slave auctioneer and a fugitive slave along the Natchez Trace. The white auctioneer’s only hope is the black runaway. How high is the price of salvation?
The best places for theater information and discounts are www.Playbill.com, www.theaternewsonline.com, www.nytheatre.com and www.theatermania. You may be required to join but membership is free. I hope to see you and your family at the theater.
I wish you smooth travels!