For Conley, a new son, a new play

THEATER

Deaf Access staging 'Tales From India'

January 22, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Baltimore-born playwright/actor/director Willy Conley has two new productions: The first is a 3-month-old son named Clayton Lee, and the second is a play titled Tales From India, which debuts Saturday, produced by Imagination Stage's Deaf Access Company in Bethesda.

Conley, who is deaf, wrote via e-mail that the play is based on three Indian folk tales. The plot focuses on a young girl determined to save her village's banyan trees, which are threatened when the maharajah orders his army to chop them down and use the wood in his fort.

The play is Conley's second commission from Imagination Stage, a young people's theater whose Deaf Access Company, he said, features "a mix of teen-aged actors who are deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing," including some hearing actors with deaf parents.

FOR THE RECORD - Performance times were inadvertently omitted from an item about Tales From India in Thursday's Today section. The complete performance schedule: 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 13-15, at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. For information, call 301-280-1660, TTY 301-718-8813.
The Sun regrets the error.

"I would want my son to take theater classes here because he is hearing and would be involved in a bilingual-bicultural environment that includes children who are deaf like my wife and I, and children who have deaf parents like himself," Conley said.

The production of Tales From India is "highly visual," incorporating shadow puppets, movement, dance and "mudras" - "Indian hand gestures that symbolize different things in life, like animals, nature, earth elements, and so forth," he said.

Tales From India and new fatherhood aren't all that Conley is up to. An associate artist at Center Stage and an associate professor at Washington's Gallaudet University, he is planning to take a sabbatical in the fall to complete an anthology of plays by hearing-impaired playwrights. He also hopes to write "a small, fun how-to-do manual on mounting a sign-language theater production," a frequent subject of inquiries to the Gallaudet theater department.

Before that, however, he will direct the university's spring production - Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. It's a prospect Conley finds "pretty funny, given all of the hoopla about Mars that is happening now."

Tales From India will be performed at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda, at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Saturdays and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 13, through Feb. 15. Tickets are $9. Call 301-280-1660, TTY 301-718-8813.

Uta Hagen

A few words about Uta Hagen, the passionate actress and teacher who died at 84 in New York on Jan. 14. In a career studded with acclaimed performances, Hagen was perhaps best known for starring as Desdemona opposite Paul Robeson in Othello and for originating the venomous role of Martha in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

While her performance in Albee's play won her the second of three Tony Awards, co-starring with Robeson in Othello proved extremely controversial, and Baltimore offered an example of the type of resistance the show faced.

In 1996, when Hagen starred in Nicholas Wright's Mrs. Klein at Washington's Kennedy Center, she told me that although Robeson's Othello helped break color barriers in theaters across the country, Baltimore theaters were not among them. The time was the 1940s; Baltimore's theaters were segregated, and the cast refused to perform for an audience that wasn't integrated.

Hagen believed the production contributed to her being blacklisted by Hollywood during the McCarthy era. Her lawyers felt the House Un-American Activities Committee hoped to use her to get Robeson.

Baltimore did figure positively in the start of Hagen's career, however. At age 18, she made her Broadway debut playing Nina in Chekhov's The Seagull. The production, which starred Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, tried out at Ford's Theatre here in 1938.

The author of several books on acting, Hagen taught for more than 50 years at HB Studios, the Greenwich Village school she founded with her second husband, Herbert Berghof (her first was Jose Ferrer). Her credo was to discover the humanity in the character being portrayed. Among her students were Matthew Broderick, Whoopi Goldberg, Jack Lemmon and Geraldine Page.

The lights at Broadway theaters were dimmed in Hagen's memory the night after her death.

Center Stage gala

There's lots of news from Center Stage. R&B star Jennifer Holliday, who won a 1982 Tony Award for her Broadway debut in Dreamgirls, will be the headliner at the 18th annual benefit gala, to be held May 22 at the theater, 700 N. Calvert St.

The event begins at 6 p.m. with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres; Holliday will perform at 7:30 p.m. Her performance will be followed by a buffet supper, dancing and a silent auction. Individual tickets are $300; corporate sponsorships are $3,000-$10,000. Proceeds benefit the theater's artistic and educational programs. Call 410-685-3200, Ext. 434.

Well before the gala takes place, however, audiences can get a look at one of Center Stage's educational programs. At 7 p.m. Monday, students in the Encounter program will present a showcase of storytelling and poetry. Encounter uses theater to help young people build bridges across socio-economic and racial lines; 45 high-school students are enrolled for the current academic year. The showcase is free and open to the public, but reservations are required. Call 410-685-3200, Ext. 361.

And finally, Center Stage's occasional Late Night Cabaret series continues tomorrow, Jan. 30 and Feb. 6, at 10:45 p.m., in the Nancy Roche Chapel Bar. Titled Crazy Business, the cabaret will feature Kate Guyton and Jonathan Hammond (cast members of Center Stage's The Miser) performing what's billed as "a Broadway-inspired musical journey exploring love, lust, passion, betrayal and other aspects of the relationship game." A $5 donation is suggested. Call 410-332-0033.

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