Friday, November 3, 2017

WOKE : A Revolutionary Cabaret CSULB

Once committed to the agreement to review a play, I do my best to meet that agreement.  I only met it half way tonight.

The ensemble for WOKE: A Revolutionary Cabaret was conceived by director Joanne Gordon in collaboration with Theatre Arts Students at Cal State University Long Beach. It is set in the Studio Theatre. It's a fairly flexible space, with an eye for experimentation and exciting productions. With Alexandra Billings and the ensemble, on a thrust stage that features what may be deigned 'bars': long pieces of channel steel hanging from a steel matrix, they become a background for the many aspects of WOKE.  

A live band is under used but nicely backs up the opening number cribbed from Les Miserables. 

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!

The term "woke": evidently derived from African American slang meaning "a state of awareness" propounds to share the diverse stories of members of the ensemble while projections of their faces or activities appear on the walls of the theatre above the audience.  With about fifteen women and a handful of men in the cast,  the audience is subjected to total immersion in a polemic that seemed designed to let Alexandra Billings shamelessly outshine the kids who were all #Me Too or black or mentally ill or lesbian or gay or abused or otherwise victimized by society. This project, totally self indulgent and in some cases uncomfortably raw, has evolved from input from students workshopping with Ms Billings and director Gordon with the goal of exposing the underbelly of angst and anger that many  have been experiencing, especially in today's society whose disregard for those minorities has become intolerable. Now, through what may be loosely described as psychodrama, the ensemble  rises to declare that it is time for a change.  

We cannot argue with that!
Members of the cast in torn cutoffs and raggedy black Tshirts, rise to tell their stories. A little like the musicals Rent and A Chorus Line, it's hit and miss with some strong performances and personal revelations that are all coalesced in a final number at the end of the first act by Ms Billings. 
Credit to Ms Gordon for the effort to create WOKE with an extremely diverse cast. There is even an "Advisory" to the audience that some of the material might be so disturbing that counseling would be available on campus for students overwhelmed by the content of the show.
 I was, at once, impressed and repulsed by one section of the show where a rapping black woman declared herself a M*****F***er. 
Photo Credit: Keith Ian Polakoff.
Nicole Royster.
Powerful and disturbing. Not that this language is not heard every day, but ... being hit over the head is probably what the "Advisory" was all about.
Some of the actors are better than others. Each was sincere and focused on keeping the loosely woven fabric of the show moving. The individual stories of each member of the ensemble are more angry than poignant with the goal, of course, to keep the energy of the Revolution alive. Indeed, the inmates of the asylum at Charenton, may have had a song in the second act, which I opted to allow to go on without me. "...  We want a Revolution.... Now!" 

The heavy polemic of WOKE might have worked better for me, had the ensemble been half the size and the issues thereby reduced.  To be overwhelmed by the troubles of these artists may be worth the experience, keeping in mind that forewarned is forearmed. 

WOKE: A Revolutionary Cabaret
Devised by The Ensemble
Part of the Devising Democracy Series
Department of Theatre Arts
Cal State University / Long Beach
Parking $8.00!
Seventh Street and East Campus Road
Long Beach, California 90840
Through November 12, 2017
Tickets and Information:

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