When collecting a list of the “best” performances that have occurred in any given year, it’s important to remember that “The Great White Way” is nothing more than an expensive stretch of theatrical real estate and that theatre’s greatest performances occur far away from Manhattan’s midtown.
So even as “Broadway is back” was the constant clamor of the season, we mustn’t forget that business as usual demands that we look elsewhere when considering the highest quality. With that in mind, here are the 10 best NY performances that I was lucky enough to experience this year. The order is entirely random.
Romeo y Julieta
Co-produced by The Public Theatre and WNYC Studios
This was a continuation of director Saheem Ali’s experimentation with radio theatre as opposed to Zoom presentations in a time of COVID. Ali transformed the canceled live-version of Richard II in The Public’s first radio play last year. This Spring, working alongside Ricardo Pérez González, he adapted Alfredo Michel Modenessi’s text into a wonderful English and Spanish bilingual production of the oft-performed play that highlighted the sheer horniness of its characters.
Many productions of Romeo and Juliet strive to ennoble its characters. By contrast, Ali left me with the realization that most adults are foolish teenagers, driven more by our libidos than by any sense of logic. And just as relevantly, like never before, I was reminded that Romeo and Julieta are just kids who are trying to figure their stuff out in the midst of embryonic adults who are posturing as if they’ve got all of the answers.
The show is still available to experience on YouTube. Word of advice, use ear plugs, allow yourself to discern what the wonderfully performed Spanish text means through intuition, and close your eyes as the actors take you on a marvelous journey.
What to Send Up When It Goes Down
Presented at Brooklyn Academy of Arts, Fisher
“Black Lives Matter” is an easy slogan to say which may be why Alesha Harris used her play to confront audiences with the blunt truth behind the words: that Black lives would be prioritized and white fragility ignored. It’s rare to encounter a work of art that calls out systems of white supremacy for what they are while also centering Blackness for what it is: worthy and in need of no apologies. In What to Send Up When It Goes Down, there was nothing to apologize for, though there was much rejoicing in recognizing a world that stopped making excuses for state sanctioned brutality against Black bodies.
The show is a tribute to those who have been murdered by police violence as well as a testimony to Black people who have long been gaslit under the auspices of the idea that their discomfort is a natural part of living in these United States. Through song, dance, and vividly acted scenes which doubled back on themselves to deliver the salient point that nothing has really changed, Harris, director Whitney White, and their cast of multi-talented performers broke through that lie and asked audiences to hold onto the truth: we can be better, but only if we work to stop perpetuating the lie that default white superiority is the way things should be.
Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord.
Presented at New York Theatre Workshop
There’s a common saying that teaches one about community: “if you want to get somewhere fast, go alone. If you want to go the distance, take a team.” In her tribute to surviving the COVID-19 pandemic, Kristina Wong drew upon wisdom learned by activists from the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s―to form a coalition of like-minded individuals to institute change―and recruited her own community of activist aunties from across the country who devoted themselves to sewing face masks for medical workers.
Sweatshop Overlord is a cheeky re-enactment of how her life ground to a standstill during the pandemic only to take on new meaning as her altruism transformed into an essential lifeline that brought her colleagues together. I could never imagine that I’d want to relive the crisis of 2020, but in Wong’s capable hands I was reminded that camaraderie is magnificent, particularly when it is pointed towards alleviating suffering rather than reveling in misery.
Presented at MCC Theatre
Jocelyn Bioh’s tribute to the burgeoning Nigerian Hollywood film industry (Nollywood) was brought to life under her frequent collaborator Saheem Ali’s piquant direction at MCC Theatre with a lively cast and star turn from the larger-than-life actress Abena, who plays an Oprah-esque talk show host.
Nollywood Dreams’ plot follows a young lady with dreams of stardom who meets cute with a handsome young star and chances upon the role of a lifetime after her older rival is suddenly incapacited. We’ve all seen this plot a million times before―indeed, it’s actually the plot of many a Nollywood dream. As always how we get there is all the fun, and in Bioh’s laugh every second script, it’s a riotously hilarious ride.
Read Vinson Cunningham’s astounding review at The New Yorker and if you’re able, order a copy of the script to read for yourself.
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.
Presented at Signature Theatre
Anna Deavere Smith interviewed scores of eyewitnesses to the Rodney King beating and riots that ensued to create a narrative that explored race and the unchecked power to brutalize anyone that police officers have been endowed with. In this revival of the searing work, she cast 6 actors to take on the roles that she once performed by herself.
Seeing the performers interact with each other imbued the work with a lustrous sense of community that eclipsed the wow factor of observing Smith morph from one characterization to another. As directed by Taibi Magar at The Signature Theatre, Twilight was messier and somehow less forgiving of the past that we all know has continued to repeat itself without even pretending to try to be better.
Presented at Lyceum Theatre
Can lip syncing sustain an entire evening? It can if you’re Diedre O’Connell who embodies Dana Higginbotham’s harrowing tale of months long torture and rapes at the hands of her drug-addicted white-nationalist captor. This is a true story. O’Connell brings the story to life so flawlessly that even her jangling bracelets and opened envelopes are aligned with the audio interview of Higginbotham’s recollection that serves as the narrative of this piece.
The show follows Dana as she reveals the numerous ways that our system failed her, a white chaplain even as her tormentor openly abused her, which begs the questions: if this could happen to her, what hope do other marginalized people have? The likely answer to that frightening query is why Dana H. should be required viewing for anyone who aspires to join law enforcement; so that they can confront what occurs when they allow convenience to overtake saving lives.
Presented at Friedman Theatre
Ruben Santiago-Hudson finally brings his one man show to Broadway, 20 years after it premiered at The Public Theatre. Lackawanna Blues offers the story of Santiago-Hudson’s upbringing in a boarding house that revolves around its dynamic proprietress, Nanny, who all but raised him and sacrificed herself to nurture her other tenants. Hudson plays all 20 characters with sui generis distinction to the point that the slightest lip protrusion or tilt of his hip becomes a clearly etched character.
As my colleague Bedati Choudhury brilliantly pointed out in her review, the play made “us yearn for a refuge that doesn’t quite exist. To, in turn, try and become that refuge because that is what our historical mothers have taught us.”
Merry Wives of Windsor
Presented by Shakespeare in The Park at the Delacorte Theatre
Director Saheem Ali kicked off the return of major productions in New York with Jocelyn Bioh’s adaptation of Merry Wives by setting it among an African immigrant community in Harlem. The results? Pure comedic bliss. Most people know that the bard wrote the play to appease Queen Elizabeth and other fans of the lecherous character John Falstaff, whose untimely demise was mentioned in Henry V. What was an act of fan service for Shakespeare becomes a comedic blitz by proxy of African exultation in this production.
Last year, Ali told me that he and Bioh were dedicated to uplifting images of Africa so that they are seen as the highest standard rather than exoticized poverty. They continue to succeed perfectly with Merry Wives, all while making the play funnier than it has any right to be and without forcing prosperity politics down anyone’s throat. For a glimpse of how they pulled it off, watch the HBO documentary ‘Reopening Night’ which gives audiences a behind the scenes view of putting it together in a time of COVID.
Presented by Brooks Atkinson Theatre
The six wives of Henry VIII gather for a reality television like competition in which they attempt to curry the audience’s favor with tales of whose life sucked the most. Except there’s a twist and a lesson to be won at the end of this fantastic women-helmed concert.
It’s rare to see as much feminine power on display as one is offered in SIX―particularly on Broadway. Even the glorious onstage band is composed solely of women. The show is a reminder that the future is gloriously female and that the female of the species is deadlier than the male because she does not need his love. Best of all, rather than drown us in sorrow, these queens turn their travails into raucous tales of daffy delirium, all while astounding audiences with their rockstar vocals, killer dance moves, and ingenious costume changes.
Presented at 2nd Stage Theatre
Lynne Nottage continues her study of the have-nots that she began in the Pulitzer prize-winning Sweat with Clyde’s. Though in this instance, she tackles the carceral system as well by subverting formulaic tropes in a gut-busting comedy that gets to the root of how people who have already served their time remain all but enslaved even after their release.
It’s a bit of a hat trick on Nottage’s part in that she disguises the societal message within a sandwich shop that is run by the titular boss from hell, with an actual TV star (Uzo Aduba in glammed up hot bawdy mode) playing what should be a star part but is simply a featured catalyst here. It’s audacious and entirely successful because Nottage is that good at spinning entertaining yarms and delivering heart-felt goods.
Bonus: NYC’s Top 10 Theatre Performers of 2021
- Ruben Santiago-Hudson in Lackawanna Blues
- Chuck Cooper in Trouble in Mind
- Luke James in Thoughts of a Colored Man
- Bonnie Milligan in Kimberly Akimbo
- Abena in Nollywood Dreams
- Pascale Armand in Merry Wives of Windsor
- Susan Kelechi Watson in Merry Wives of Windsor
- Francis Jue in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992
- Holden Hagelberger in Trevor: The Musical
- Diedre O’Connell in Dana H.