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Washington DC by Tracy Lyon

Making Art From Tragedy: Charles Randolph-Wright Discusses
Anthems: Culture Clash in the District

Charles Randolph-Wright has had a lengthy and successful career in the arts. He has worn a variety of hats including that of writer, director and producer. Randolph-Wright even spent some time as a member of a disco group (however, he refuses to reveal the name of the group and warns not to try to find it on the Internet because, "I had a different name.")

Mr. Randolph-Wright has an impressive body of work under his belt. His achievements include authoring the Off-Broadway show Blue, which starred Phylicia Rashad. He also directed the wildly popular touring revival of Guys and Dolls, starring Maurice Hines. Additionally, he has a number of projects in the works including a "cyber musical" called Skindiver, which he is directing and co-writing with Nona Hendryx.

His most recent contribution to the Washington, DC, arts scene is a thought-provoking play called Anthems: Culture Clash in the District [see Tracy's review]. Richard Montoya and his colleagues from Culture Clash, an L.A. based theater group, are the authors of this play about life in the nation's capital after the tragic events of September 11th. The piece features a diverse group of characters that include a Middle Eastern taxi driver, a Washington power couple and the male panda who lives at the National Zoo. As the director, Randolph-Wright brings these diverse personalities to life at Washington's Arena Stage.

Speaking to me from L.A. (where he is mounting a new production of Blue) Charles Randolph-Wright provides some insight into the DC production of this very stirring piece and his very personal experience with a national tragedy.

Tracy Lyon:  How did you hook up with Culture Clash?

Charles Randolph-Wright:  I was working in television in Los Angeles. It was twelve years ago, I think. I told them I was working in television and depressed. I was looking in L.A. for something different because everyone in L.A. was doing theater to get television and film.

They were so unlike anything else. I guess we met before through other people but when I was doing Guys and Dolls at Arena they were also doing Radio Mambo (at the Arena) and that's when we talked about doing something together.

TL:  Anthems feels like such a fresh piece. How did you achieve this?

CRW:  They (Culture Clash) opened the possibility that the look and feel of the show had to stay open to me. It had to function so that it moved in and out of scenes seamlessly and quickly. I think my approach to it was very cinematic because it's presenting all of these snapshots, but it is intentionally not going in too deep and not delving into things because I think that's the audience's job. It allows the audience to have their own experience with these people and these situations. They (the audience) all come away with the thing that they like the most and there are many people who see things they really dislike in it. I am thrilled that it bothers them. The thing that I desire most from this show is that people communicate. People want to stay and talk afterwards. Whether they agree or disagree or whatever they feel, the fact of communication is the most important thing in the show. So, I wanted to provide an open forum of communication and that is how I directed it in the sense of allowing all of these different worlds and entities to collide on stage. I wanted to provide the palette on which they could do that.

TL:  The play portrays such a wide range of characters and situations. Is there a character or scene that touches you the most?

CRW:  There are many. The navy guy in his navy blues who returns to the Pentagon to bury his daughter is just overwhelming. I have never watched the scene without getting tears in my eyes. From the first day we did it in rehearsal, it was one of the most powerful pieces to me. The Vietnam vet going to the wall is another. There are many moments that I love. When the panda is upset and the zookeeper comes in and comforts the panda, it provides comfort to all of us. Those are very moving scenes to me. As Bo says in the beginning, we have seen the rage and the chaos. We always see that. What else can you portray? I think that's what Culture Clash did so well - what Richard Montoya especially wanted to do in this piece and he succeeded in providing many different views.

TL:  As you said earlier, everyone seems to be able to find something to relate to in this piece. Personally, I related to two of the characters very strongly. Aside from the messages related in the piece, the characters come off feeling so real.

CRW:  That was what we strove to do, especially in rehearsal because there is no scene over six or seven minutes. So, very quickly they turn into someone else but you know these people. You identify them immediately. That is the benefit of nine tremendous actors.

TL:  What was it like to work with such a versatile group of actors?

CRW:  It was thrilling. It was very difficult because we are all alike and we are all very vocal. We were analyzing and discussing everything. Every four days different people from the community came to run-throughs because I wanted to see how they would respond. I didn't want to wait till previews because we only had a few of them to see how this piece felt and I'm from New York and Richard is from L.A. so, we had a different view. I wanted real Washingtonians to tell us what they felt.

TL:  The play features a panda, which is a rather different but very effective device. Were you worried that people would not accept it?

CRW:  I actually never thought about that but I knew some of what the panda says is controversial and could cause people to respond negatively. I never worried about that because the whole metaphor that Richard came up with is a black and white bear in a mainly black and white town and what that means. It makes you think about what the panda would say if he really could talk. I thought the idea of him talking was extraordinary. It's such a different view than what you would ever expect to see, that it provided us with a way into this world that we loved.

TL:  The show is centered around the aftermath of 9/11. As an artist, how did the events of that day effect you?

CRW:  As I said, I live in New York. I was on the street on my bike. I literally was blocks away and I saw the towers fall. I have friends who died. I was working at some of the help centers and I rode my bike around the city that night. It was unreal because it was so quiet and so empty and I had never seen it this way. It was horrifying. The idea of people coming together and so completely helping is what got us all through this. Standing in my neighborhood and watching people walking home who were at first just distraught and a little disheveled. As time wore on people were completely covered in soot and I stood there thinking, I am in war. A lot of that has come out. For a lot of us it was a very emotional process working on this piece and dealing with it. It was quite emotional. We would go home exhausted. I finally got to grieve by doing this production. It's been quite a journey for all of us. It will be an experience that we all will cherish because it was fantastic group of people who were not only talented but had such heart and were so open to this work. They tried to do the best work possible and honor all of these people that we represent.


-- Tracy Lyon


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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