Playfully Connected
Three standout productions this month can claim local ties

By SARAH C. LANGE

January 2017

The Pulitzer Prize-winning “Disgraced” debuts this month at The Rep, where the playwright saw productions as a child.
Photo by Dan Norman

We’re lucky to have a vibrant theater scene in greater Milwaukee, and this month three productions showcase the talents of artists with ties to the area. 

After astonishing audiences at a number of theaters across the country and abroad, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Disgraced” will finally make its way to the Milwaukee Repertory Theater on Jan. 17.

Written by Ayad Akhtar, “Disgraced” depicts a dinner party gone explosively wrong. “The play is thorny and complicated and doesn’t offer any easy answers,” Akhtar says.

“He is one of the most important voices in both American and world theater right now,” says Mark Clements, The Rep’s artistic director, of Akhtar. “Presenting this play that tackles Islamophobia and questions of Muslim-American identity could not be more timely, and I am very excited to see how our audience responds,” he says, adding that he anticipates the play will spur discussion in the car ride home and well beyond.

“It’s such an amazing thing to have my work at The Rep — one of those experiences in life where things come full circle,” says Akhtar, who grew up in Brookfield and saw plays at The Rep as a child. “You see something as a young person on a stage. You imagine someday you could be on that stage. And lo and behold, time and the magic of life bring you there.”

A coming-of-age story, “Welcome to Bronzeville” follows Mike Dubois, a teenage boy living in the neighborhood that was the cultural and economic heart of Milwaukee’s black community in the first part of the 20th century. While the story takes place in 1957 with jazz music and even a visit from the legendary Billie Holiday, kids today can relate to Mike’s struggle to find his role within his community amid peer pressure and expectations from adults.

“We see in the news so much negativity, and right now there’s a lot of distrust and language of hate,” says playwright Sheri Williams Pannell of First Stage. “This is a story of love and affirmation. It’s rooted in truth but shares the challenges that young people are facing to this day trying to grow up and become their own person in our society.”

Pannell spent time with elders who remembered Bronzeville before part of it was demolished to clear a path for a highway, and their reminiscing inspired her fictional account. Upon sharing early scenes with the elders, she was delighted with their response.

“When I used my imagination to create some moments that were outside of the stories they shared with me, some received those stories as if, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember when that happened,’” she says and laughs. “So I know that I was in sync.

“I hope to present a story that will inspire and encourage not just the African-American community but greater Milwaukee,” Pannell adds.

“Welcome to Bronzeville,” the first in Pannell’s trilogy about the Dubois family, premieres Jan. 13 at the Todd Wehr Theater at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. The second play, “Christmas in Bronzeville,” is set in 1959 and debuts this March.

For actual reminiscing and a lighthearted show that will bring laughs, John McGivern, beloved for his one-man shows as well as “Around the Corner” on PBS, is taking “The Wonder Bread Years” to the Schauer Arts & Activities Center in Hartford on Jan. 27 and 28.

He explains that Pat Hazell, a writer for “Seinfeld,” wrote this show, and the two of them reworked it to suit McGivern’s childhood. “We made the show my experience, which happens to be Milwaukee,” McGivern says. That meant changing the talent show bit as well as the show-and-tell portion.

“It’s a great family show,” he says, adding that it appeals to all ages even as baby boomers recall the pop culture references. “It’s that going back and reminiscing and nostalgia that drive the show from beginning to end. It’s funny, and it’s sweet.

“As specific as I thought my stories were, there is an appeal that is really universal,” he adds. “People are like, ‘The streets are different and the names are different, but what happened to you is just exactly how I felt.’”

This story ran in the January 2017 issue of: