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Posts Tagged Guthrie Theater

ANSA AKYEA: About Transformation and Letting Go

In Hansol Jung’s Cardboard Piano, set in a township in Northern Uganda, the talented Ansa Akyea takes on two roles: in Part I as a soldier hunting for a runaway boy soldier; and in Part II as Paul, the pastor of the community’s church, whose past collides with his present, forcing a confrontation with his future. Particularly with the character of Paul, this sobering yet transcendently beautiful and hopeful play brings to mind these words by the Chinese philosopher Laozi: “New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.”

When asked what playing Paul was teaching him, Ansa replied, “About transformation and letting go. By the end, Paul knows that he must start over; he can’t be the same person moving forward. There’s a new journey that he has to go on.”

Tackling such hard life lessons through the play has had Ansa “excited, scared and filled with dread.” They are, in fact, the very emotions faced by actors when they decide to take on a new role and commit to mining its depths, then perform to live audiences.

Actors Michael Jemison, Kiara Jackson, Adelin Phelps (left to right) and Ansa Akyea (far right) learning from fight choreographer Annie Enneking (center)
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

As for his excitement, Ansa cited several reasons to feel that way about being in Cardboard Piano:

  • Director Signe V. Harriday: “I’ve always wanted to work with her. She’s one of the smartest artists who cares about her community and using theatre to connect with community.”
  • Playwright Hansol Jung: “It’s inspiring to have a playwright in conversation about religion, love and conflict. We also need new works to better reflect our diversity. And Hansol’s material has a freshness to it; its perspective is specific, yet universal.”
  • Being part of an intimate four-member ensemble, which includes Kiara Jackson, Michael Jemison and Adelin Phelps: “Signe cast us knowing that we’ll bring our own personal history and intelligence as actors. She chose actors who live in their bodies and hearts. These are things required from actors so they can empathize and act.”

Becoming an actor is also a journey in itself. For Ansa, a Swiss born Ghanaian-American, his acting journey began in his junior year at the University of Iowa, where he would earn his B.A. degrees in French and Communications Studies. That year, he took an elective class taught by a visiting professor from Sierra Leone who wanted to cast Ansa in his play about the 1839 rebellion on the Amistad, a slave schooner. With his parents’ blessing, as long as acting didn’t interfere with his studies, Ansa took the part.

Left to right: Dialect coach Foster Johns working with actors Ansa Akyea and Michael Jemison
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Ansa’s tremendous talent on stage as an undergraduate led his university to offer him the opportunity to earn an MFA in Acting. Cast right out of graduate school, Ansa honed his craft in Chicago, working at numerous theaters starting with Steppenwolf, Black ensemble, ITC, stage left theater and many others.

Ansa ultimately moved to the Twin Cities when his spouse got a job here. He hit the ground running, immediately being hired by Mixed Blood Theater, with subsequent stints at the Guthrie and Children’s Theatre Company. Ever since, Ansa has appeared on many stages throughout the Twin Cities and been seen or heard on television, film and radio. He has also been the recipient of the 2007 City Pages Best Actor award, 2011 Minnesota Playwright Center’s McKnight Award for Acting, 2013 Minnesota Playwright Center’s Many Voices Fellowship and 2013 Ivey Award for Ensemble Acting in the Guthrie’s Clybourne Park.

About theatre, Ansa had this to say: “This is my life. I love my profession. I have an achievement mentality; I have aspirations to always learn more. I will always work.”

After Cardboard Piano, Ansa will be teaching at North High School located in North St. Paul. He will also play Daddy Onceler in the Children Theatre Company’s production of The Lorax this spring.

Tickets and information for Cardboard Piano here

To Thine Own Self Be True

The above phrase is one of the most famous lines in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is a parent’s advice to only the son, not the daughter, Ophelia, who is played by Maeve Moynihan in Joel Sass’s new adaptation for Park Square Theatre. While some of the male characters have been changed to female in Joel’s version in order to, as he put it, “have more women walking the halls of Elsinore, expanding the notion of who carries power,” Ophelia does remain female and possess limited power in the face of social mores. With Park Square’s Hamlet set in modern times and presented to a contemporary audience, I wondered how Maeve perceived her character and planned to approach her role.

“Ophelia is a complex character, especially in relationship with the other characters,” Maeve reflected. “She’s often seen as being weak, but she’s not weak. She merely wants to please and do the right thing; she worries about the needs of others. The one kind of power that she has which the others lack–or isn’t as potent in them–is empathy. For Ophelia, she has a sense of caring that’s so strong that it cripples her. If you don’t look out for yourself, then you can lose sight of yourself. So Ophelia is misunderstood when we read the play.”

Maeve continued, “Ophelia does have a mind of her own and her own opinions, but she wants to make her mom Polonia proud. The other characters muddle up for her what’s right and wrong for herself, especially her mother, who asks her to spy on Hamlet. It’s not what she would do; but her mom, whom she loves, has asked her to do it.”

As Maeve sees it, Ophelia is very teen-like, a life stage when she’s trying to figure out who she is as an individual. She’s doing this in a court where her mother is of very high rank so Ophelia must always be concerned about how she reflects on her family.

Ophelia (center), played by Maeve Moynihan (Photo by Amy Anderson)

“Sometimes we find ourselves in situations when we’re not weak people or pushovers. We’re just trying to do the right thing given the circumstances,” Maeve said. “What would it be like to be the kid of the President, and you didn’t have a choice about being that?”

Maeve imagines that Ophelia wishes that she could tell everyone to just leave her alone. She doesn’t want her life, including her relationship with Hamlet, in the public eye at all times. During rehearsals, Maeve herself has wished that Ophelia could also tell Hamlet, “Quit being a jerk! It’s not my fault that your father died.”

The prospect of playing Ophelia was, indeed, intimidating for Maeve. The youthful Maeve could certainly relate to Ophelia, but she feared overthinking the role. Director Joel Sass got her to trust her instincts in exploring what he called the “inner violence” done to her. While Maeve had initially considered Ophelia’s descent into madness to be “a fragile unraveling,” she began to see its more explosive emotionality.

“Originally, I would have approached it as unfathomable sadness,” Maeve said. “But Ophelia is actually trying really hard to find her reality again. She realizes that she has a warped reality and something is off because of how people comment on her behavior. What’s frightening to her is not that she thinks something is wrong with herself but that others are treating her like that.

Cast members being directed by Joel Sass; Maeve is second from the left
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

We’ve seen her repressed throughout the play, and finally it’s the moment for her to unleash all the emotions she’d been wanting to let out. She’s no longer worried about how people see her. She lets her pent-up frustration and anger come out. We get to see the demons inside of her that needs expression.”

In rehearsals, Maeve worked hard on how best to unsettle the audience with sharp emotional shifts, true to Joel’s intention to take the audience “to interior psychological landscapes of the characters.” Sudden laughter may just as suddenly turn into crying.

For Maeve, a 2016 graduate of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater Acting Program, the draw to becoming an actor was the chance to get into characters’ heads to be different people. She loves that, as a result, actors come to accept and understand people in new ways. She loves that she’s in a profession that builds empathy.

Nine years ago, some of you may have seen Maeve on the Guthrie stage as Carrie in Little House on the Prairie. That girl has since grown up and is now very excited to be on Park Square’s Proscenium Stage to play the multilayered Ophelia. In her own words, “It’s going to be awesome!”

Jamil Jude, Artist Plus

Since December 2015, Jamil Jude has served as Park Square Theatre’s Artistic Programming Associate. As such, he is mentored by Artistic Director Richard Cook through the Leadership U[niversity] – One-on-One Program to foster the professional development of early-career, rising leaders of theatre. Jamil was only one of six exceptionally talented applicants awarded such a mentorship by Theatre Communications Group, the national organization formed to strengthen, nurture and promote professional nonprofit American theatre.

Jamil Jude with Alix Kendall on The BUZZ - Fox 9 to promote Nina Simone: Four Women at Park Square Theatre until March 5 (photo by Connie Shaver)

Jamil Jude with Alix Kendall on The BUZZ – Fox 9 to promote Nina Simone: Four Women at Park Square Theatre through March 5th
(photo by Connie Shaver)

While Jamil may be most visible to our audiences as the facilitator for post-show discussions, such as the upcoming Sunday, February 19, Musings for Nina Simone: Four Women or most recently as a promoter of Nina on Fox 9 with Alix Kendall, his work at Park Square, Jamil explained, “is really focused on advancing our broader inclusivity goals.”

“Richard began the work by expanding Park Square’s repertoire–the stories we tell and the artists who tell them,” Jamil elaborated. “I’ve been lucky enough to assist in that effort, retooling our process of identifying plays and artists, introducing new systems meant to streamline our production process and being another set of artistic eyes as plays move towards the stage. It’s amazing to witness a theatre like Park Square in this part of its growth.”

Over 40 years later, Park Square Theatre remains a work in progress, an organization in dynamic change to, as Jamil describes, “develop a deeper understanding of its place in the community and how to respond to the needs, wants and aesthetic desires of said community. To play a small part in that is a humbling experience.”

Jamil Jude, "Artist Plus" (photo by Farrington Llewellyn)

Jamil Jude, “Artist Plus”
(photo by Farrington Llewellyn)

Work in progress is also an apt description for Jamil Jude himself. He, too, continually  examines his purpose and relevance as an artist. Self-defined as an “Artist Plus,” he works as a freelance director, producer, playwright, dramaturg, speaker or whatever role needed to pursue an artistic vision. That vision is, more often than not, in service to social justice. He has, in fact, more specifically described himself as a “social justice based art maker dedicated to building communities, bringing new communities to the arts and to using the arts as a means to eliminate artificial barriers that society imposes.”

Besides Park Square Theatre, Jamil has been involved in various ways with other theatre organizations throughout the Twin Cities, including Mixed Blood Theatre Company, Children’s Theatre Company, Guthrie Theater, Daleko Arts, Theatre in the Round, Minnesota Fringe Festival and more. He is also a co-producer of The New Griots Festival, dedicated to promoting the work of the next generation of Twin Cities black artists across disciplines (visual, performing, literary, etc.).

Also fitting is that Jamil recently directed Baltimore is Burning, a new play about the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. It was the inaugural production for the promising new theatre company Underdog Theatre, which “creates art for the underserved, underrepresented, and unheard,” and satisfyingly garnered good reviews. Kory LaQuess Pullam, who has graced Park Square’s stages, is its playwright and the founding artistic director of Underdog.

Darrick Mosley, Kevin West and Peter Thomson in The Highwaymen, directed by Jamil Jude (photo by Scott Pakudaitis)

Darrick Mosley, Kevin West and Peter Thomson in The Highwaymen, directed by Jamil Jude
(photo by Scott Pakudaitis)

Dear to Jamil’s heart is his latest project, directing The Highwaymen, a new play based on research that Jamil and playwright Josh Wilder did on the destruction of St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood in the 1960s to make way for I-94. The demolition of that thriving, predominantly black community echoed similar occurrences throughout the nation to make way for progress on the backs of people of color. Josh dedicated The Highwaymen, which runs through February 26 at the History Theatre in St. Paul, to “the memories we step on and the lives we drive over.”

In November 2015, Jamil was listed in American Theatre, a publication and theatre communications group, as one of “Six Theatre Workers You Should Know.” Whether as part of Park Square Theatre, someone else’s team or working solo, he’ll ever strive to bring us socially relevant theatre to spark constructive community interactions and inspire social change. Whatever Jamil touches, you can just feel them coming: those positive vibrations.

 

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