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Thomas-Whit Ellis talks about ‘Pig’

There are two more opportunities to see Fresno State’s “The Sty of the Blind Pig,” which plays through Saturday night at the Woods Theatre. I chatted via email earlier with director Thomas-Whit Ellis, who offers his insights on this drama.

Question: Give us a brief snyopsis of the show.

Answer:¬†Against a backdrop of social/political uncertainties and the promise of change with the dawning of the civil rights movement, mother and daughter attempt to etch out a decent life as domestics in 1950′s Chicago. A 30ish Alberta finds her life upended when a suitor, Blind Jordan stumbles into that life. Though he presents the potential for romance and happiness his presence proves disruptive to her elderly mother and uncle.

What can you tell me about the play’s production history?

The play ran on Broadway in the early 70′s to very good reviews. Soon thereafter, it was produced at my Alma Mater, CSU Sacramento. Through some serendipitous events I ended up cast in a small part (that’s listed as the voice of Rev. Goodlow). The director at that time decided to create an actual, live character and choir as opposed to the recorded voices during Alberta’s flashback of the funeral of her friend Emanuel Fisher. This was my first foray in the theatre. The production ended up as a Kennedy Center/American College Theatre Festival finalist.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Sty of the Blind Pig’

Immersive and challenging are two words I’d use to describe Fresno State’s production of “The Sty of the Blind Pig.” Leisurely is another that might be charitably used when discussing Phillip Hayes Dean’s early 1970s play, which digs deeply into the lives of a poor black family in 1950s Chicago unaware that history is on the cusp of the civil rights movement. A less charitable way to put it would be slow-paced.

Whatever your affinity is for prose-intense three-act dramas — this one clocks in at more than two and a half hours including one intermission — it’s clear that director Thomas-Whit Ellis was intent on making audiences feel and think. I admire his commitment to the material, along with his cast’s. Though I found parts of the experience something of a slog, I was moved at times by the tenacity with which these characters came to life. (The show continues 8 p.m. nightly through Saturday at the Woods Theatre.)

“Sty of the Blind Pig” — yes, it’s an odd title, of which we learn the meaning in a climactic third-act revelation — is primarily the story of a mother-daughter relationship, with all its attendant complications and dysfunctions. Weedy Warren (Francine Oputa), the elderly mother, is pious, cranky and desperate to keep her adult unmarried daughter, Alberta (Breayre S. Tender), under her thumb. Together they share a dilapidated apartment in one of Chicago’s worst neighborhoods.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘For Colored Girls’

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The theater department at California State University, Fresno hasn’t been playing it safe recently. It kicked off the season with “T.I.C. Trenchcoat in Common,” a play so new it included a Facebook joke. And it follows with an intense, demanding and altogether fierce 1975 classic, Ntozake Shange’s seminal “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” which finishes up its run Saturday.

This provocative turn by the department has made for some interesting theater — and perhaps a need for open-mindedness on the part of the audience. Make no mistake, “For Colored Girls” does not always come in an easily digestible narrative form.

This series of “choreopoems,” which all have to do with the struggles and obstacles faced by African-American women, are told in threads of prose, poetry, choreography and music. Some are nearly impenetrable on first listen. Others are all too shockingly clear.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘A Soldier’s Play’

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Captain vs. captain.

The two U.S. Army guys glaring at each other have the same rank, which puts them in a sort of awkward holding pattern when it comes to the rigid hierarchical structure of the military. Under that system, in almost every personal interaction a soldier will either command total obedience from those beneath him — or be put in a situation of complete subservience when dealing with someone of higher rank.

But when Capt. Davenport and Capt. Taylor face off in Charles Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play,” now in an interesting but uneven production through Saturday at Fresno State’s John Wright Theatre, neither has complete mastery over the other. Add to that the fact that Taylor is white and Davenport is black — and that this is 1944 in a segregated armed forces — and the dynamic is pretty frosty. Director Thomas-Whit Ellis stages this particular scene as if the two men are like equally charged magnets, neither repelling or attracting each other, in a perpetually wobbly standoff.

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Donald’s weekend picks

So much to do on the arts/music/theater beat:

1. FILL IN THE BLANK
I had a phone call from a woman this morning desperate to know how many MORE weekends “[title of show]“ will be running at the Severance Theatre. (My condensed review of the show is in Friday’s 7 section, and I’ve reposted the extended version today so it’s easier to find.) I had to tell her: Sorry, it’s only playing through Sunday. This is a theater event not to miss.

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More on ‘A Soldier’s Play’

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In Friday’s 7 section I talk with Thomas-Whit Ellis, director of “A Soldier’s Play,” which opens today at Fresno State’s John Wright Theatre. Here’s the complete interview:

Question: Why pick “A Soldier’s Play”?

Answer: There were many reasons, but these kinds of selections are sometimes based on the specific pool of actors I may have as majors or general students with certain interests.

A couple of years ago, we had enough African American males to support such a production. I proposed it then. It took a year or two for the department to go along with the proposal.

What’s it about?

A black captain ordered by Washington to investigate the murder of a black sergeant. Obviously he is met with derision and resistance by his white colleagues. Black soldiers are in awe of seeing an actual black officer, but are kind of reluctant to cooperate with the investigation.

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