When a chance encounter more than a decade ago on the campus of Howard University brought together two young Black men, both eager to make their mark in the theatrical world, neither could have predicted the path on which they’d collectively embark — kismet spirits determined to bring to the stage oft-ignored, rarely-shared tales about Black folk and their dreams, fears, frustrations and desire for love — thoughts and emotions to which our ancestors clung while struggling to survive.
Now, after years of arduous work, holding fast to their vision and refusing to give up or give in even in the face of uncertainty and setbacks, Courtney Baker-Oliver and Stephen Butler Jr., under the auspices of Restoration Stage, Inc., have secured their place in the District’s heralded legacy of Black theater companies.
But if you need proof, simply check out Restoration Stage’s critically acclaimed, Helen Hayes Recommended show, “Chocolate Covered Ants,” back by popular demand now appearing at the new THEARC WEST Theater in Southeast with performances that continue through Sunday, Oct. 28. The production’s based upon a message that will resonate with audiences regardless of race or religion and which ultimately reminds us of the unpredictability of both the human psyche and our emotions.
“We’ve replaced a couple of the actors and made several other adjustments but very few changes were actually needed even though the play is set in 2016,” Baker-Oliver said. “Things still feel a lot today like they did then. We’re still protesting against many of the same problems commonplace for people of color, most notably the harsh, shameful reality and the dim quality of life experienced by most African Americans.
“As a youth, I believed that Dr. King’s dream of Blacks one day being judged by the content of our character was inevitable,” he said. “I was wrong. Skin color still determines our reality and our possibilities. The play speaks to that experience and how frustrating it can be to work so much harder than others and yet get so much less in return.”
Baker-Oliver, who co-founded the D.C.-based company in 2005, wears numerous hats including artistic director, executive producer and lyricist — representing an integral component of a talented creative team comprised of Stephen Butler Jr., playwright-in-residence and 2016 Arena Stage playwrighting fellow along with composer Christopher John Burnett.
Other productions of the Black-owned and operated theater company include: “All That Glitters,” “Drag On,” “The First Lady,” “Veils,” “Silver Foxes” and the play for which Restoration Stage may be best known, the musical “THE TRUTH.”
‘Ants’ Will Leave You Breathless
“Chocolate Covered Ants” invites us into the office of psychologist Dr. Adrienne Taylor, a Black woman and professor of mental health, who has recently completed three years of study focusing on the plight of the African-American woman. As the play begins, she’s reached the pivotal, final stage of her research — an examination of the Black male and what effects, if any, they have had on the mental, social and physical survival of the Black woman.
The four men chosen for the study group reflect archetypes commonly seen within the Black community. Yet, their skin color serves as the restrictive vehicle which makes them “brothers on the battlefield,” tragically linking them together because of similarly-faced challenges and hurdles resulting in a lifetime of anger, angst and pain.
Several things about this play make it one that deserves considerably more attention than it has received thus far — a production that merits a viewing by audiences of national proportion — including but not limited to a stellar crew of well-directed actors each of whom holds their own and a powerful script replete with a multitude of creatively crafted phrases — some hilarious, others intense and provocative.
The playwright’s decision to employ the soliloquy delivered by each male protagonist — a theatrical device used to perfection by the renowned William Shakespeare — provides the men an opportunity to “talk to himself,” speaking aloud so that we, the audience, may better understand the internal struggles each has long faced, secrets too disconcerting to be shared and ghosts that linger within and haunt each man’s life.
As the men step into the spotlight on the darkened stage, they utter their unique versions of the most well-known soliloquy in the English language, “To be, or not to be” (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1), with chilling results.
The use of multimedia employed sparingly but appropriately results in a more vivid and compelling illumination of changing moods and backdrops within particular scenes, further assisting the audience in comprehending the nuances of the play.
Finally, as the play reaches its conclusion, the complicated connections that bind many of the characters yield “shock impact” that only the more astute viewer could have surmised prior to their being revealed. Suffice to say it’s an ending that demands the audience to draw their own summary — then forcing them to question whether they’ve arrived on the right track.
The cast of “Chocolate Covered Ants” features actress Suli Myrie as Dr. Adrienne Taylor in the lead role, performed as if the script had been written specifically with her in mind — one which she effortlessly embraces and convincingly delivers, akin to one who has recovered their favorite form-fitting glove — once lost but now found.
Myrie’s surrounded by an equally-talented group of actors with performances by Marlon Russ, Kandace Foreman, Marquis Fair and Miles Folley emerging as some of this writer’s most preferred.
Baker-Oliver points to the difficulty other Black theater companies, whether in the District or in other parts of the country, still face: continued financial support and greater recognition.
Fortunately, as he says, the generosity of two local patrons of the arts, husband and wife Jack Davies and Kay Kendall, made it possible for the company to bring the production back to the stage.
“They attended the world premiere (Feb. 15 – March 5, 2017) of our previous play, ‘The Very Last Days of the First Colored Circus,’ and have since become tremendous supporters of our work, Stephen’s writing in particular,” he said.
Baker-Oliver recently shared the mic with other local theater luminaries on “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” (WAMU 88.5) in an illuminating discussion about the history and future of Black theater in the DMV that included: Robert Hooks, founder, Black Repertory Theatre; Lyn Dyson, alumnus, D.C. Black Repertory Alumni Association; and Jennifer Nelson, senior programming adviser of Ford’s Theater.
He said it provided him a special opportunity to sit with those who led the way for today’s Black theater companies in the greater Washington area.
“People need to see what we can do,” Baker-Oliver said with his colleague Butler chiming in. “Of course we have a great deal of respect for the larger theater companies and several, like Mosaic Theatre Company of DC, continue to represent Black actors very well in the area. Still, those who write about us often use their own filters and that can sometimes be problematic.
“We aren’t trying to take other companies’ place,” Baker-Oliver and Butler said. “We simply assert that there should be, there must be, a cultural institution that articulates the importance of our own stories. People like Robert Hooks, who founded the Black Repertory Theatre, Mike Malone and so many others, went through unbelievable difficulties in order to keep Black theater alive in the District. They have passed the baton to those like Restoration Stage, the next generation, and we accept the challenge.
“The District, as a national city, has been without a premier, prominent and respected Black-owned and operated theater company, one which tells our stories in our own words, for far too many years,” the two said. “We are on a mission to lead a movement, to restore the Black family one step at a time and to tell our stories in such a way that respects our ancestors. Even in this current era of Donald Trump, we can do what Hooks and his colleagues did in the past as they resisted, stood firm and spoke truth to power.
“We encourage young people of color because we were encouraged early in our careers,” they said. “But who will come after us? Who will be prepared to tell our ancestors’ stories? We cannot carry the load alone. We have to care. Most important, we have to be passionate if we want to succeed.”
For tickets or more information, go to restorationstage.com or call 202-714-4174.
Editor’s Note: Baker-Oliver’s acknowledged mentor, Mike Malone, who died Dec. 4, 2006, served as an essential and enigmatic presence in Washington’s Black theater community since the late 1960s and initiated an ongoing holiday tradition with his staging of Langston Hughes’s “Black Nativity: A Gospel Song Play.” In his role as a choreographer, director and teacher, Malone inspired a generation of performers and brought positive portrayals of Black life to audiences throughout the U.S. and abroad.
He further laid the path for the Black theater movement in the District beginning in the late 1960s, creating institutions that trained youth in dance, drama and the visual arts. As professor of musical theater for Howard University’s Department of Theatre Arts, Malone groomed hundreds of students, some of whom have gone on to establish noteworthy professional careers including: Debbie Allen, Lynne Whitfield and Anthony Anderson. He was also the co-founder, with Peggy Cooper Cafritz, and the first artistic director of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, founded in 1974, whose roots can be traced to the Workshop for Careers in the Arts, which Malone and Cafritz started in 1968.