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A double feature to reminisce, to confront

By Staff | Feb 3, 2015

Recently, I saw two plays in one day over in Ft. Myers, a double feature to make any serious theater-lover jealous. When was the last time you saw two plays in the same day?

As a kid growing up in Pittsburgh back in the 1930s, my parents gave me 16 cents and sent me to the movies to get lost on Sunday afternoons. They had their reasons. In those days the local moviehouse did matinee double features. And I loved them. The movie cost 11 cents and the 5 cents was for a box of candy, my choice, licorice Nibs that, sadly, are no longer sold. I remember making that nickel box last all through the two pictures and the serial in between, usually “Tom Mix” or “Fu Manchu.” Both thrilled me.

Now, there was no Tom Mix this past Saturday. Just two totally satisfying and absolutely different plays for committed theater-goers. One was a lively musical filled with nostalgic memories of the past. It was Florida Repertory Theater’s magical “Fascinatin’ Gershwin,” featuring 34, at least, of George and Ira Gershwin songs, with maybe a couple they didn’t work on together. Ira did the lyrics and George did the music.

Robert Cacioppo, the founder and artistic director, has polished this labor of love over some 35 years. And what he has delivered here, with the help of five brilliant and superb performers, makes it the best musical I’ve seen in years of southwest Florida musical productions. I overheard someone in the lobby after the show say, “It was like being at a Broadway Musical.” I would say, “and then some.”

There was a sweet, thin plot tracing the Gershwin’s impact on musical theater. They told it in solos, in spirited duos, and harmonious quartets. They all could dance and, oh, did they ever tap them shoes, and twirl in romantic ballroom waltzes all around that little Black Box Theater.

Think back in your own life of what you remember about, “I Got Rhythm,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “Embraceable You,” “Summertime,” and “You say Tomato, and I say Tomaato.”

That’s just five of the 34. Just imagine the largess.

Okay, we’ve got a problem. The show has been so successfully received that performance after performance has been sold out. They’ve extended it. It runs now until March 22. I’d get on that website or call the box office absolutely as soon as you can at (239) 332-4488, or floridarep.org. It’s a must see.

Now the second play. This was another labor of love, this one a dream of Bill Taylor of Theatre Conspiracy. For years he’s wanted to introduce more minority artists to southwest Florida theater audiences. But what he needed was more minority actors. But, and this was the Catch-22, as I understood it, there wasn’t enough work for most actors of color. So they left and went elsewhere in Florida; Bill Taylor couldn’t find actors for plays he wanted to stage.

Well, he’s persistent after 20 years of theater, and he’s friends with Dr. Stuart Brown, head of Theater Arts at Florida Southwestern State College. They talked and planned and Bill Taylor’s Theatre Conspiracy has found eight minority actors, and has done a production that might become my choice for the finest serious play of the season.

It is on the boards at the fine Black Box Theater at Florida SouthWestern State College, and is the first of Taylor’s 2015-16 initiatives that will be featuring minority actors in a play aiming at minority issues that will have been written by a woman playwright, black, Hispanic or white.

The play I saw was Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.”

What a play. How many of you remember it from Broadway? It opened in 1976, and was nominated for a Tony Award. The one I saw at FSW moved me even more deeply than the Broadway one I saw, where I sat numb when the curtain came down. And I don’t say that lightly.

I’m convinced part of that has to be attributed to director Patricia Idlette. She made a reputation for her role in Showtime’s “Dead Like Me.” She’s got the stuff, that’s for sure. She imbued a lot of it into the eight young actresses who enthralled us with their performances.

Each actress is dressed in a different flowing gown color. They represent eight different parts of America, and pound home the idea that for a young African American woman growing up among racism, poverty, drugs, shootings, there is no easy way to survive, no matter where she lives in our country, ridden as it is with endemic problems affecting minority people.

It’s a hard evening to sit through, but oh so thrilling and utterly worth it. Those just looking for entertainment from theater need not apply. Oh, you will be enthralled, dazzled, and certainly confronted. For me, that’s what entertainment needs to be as far as theater goes. There was no other place I would have rather been than right there, in that audience with two of my favorite friends who honored the play, too.

I give it my highest plaudits and accolades. On a scale of 1-10, this production gets an 11. It plays until Feb. 7. Congratulations Bill Taylor and everyone connected to it. Call the Theatre Conspiracy at (239) 936-3239. Support what he’s doing now, and also plan to see the next play; “Good People” by David Lindsay-Abaire runs through Feb. 21. It’s a play I saw last summer, and it won my heart with its warmth, humor and reality.

I look forward to seeing you at a play, soon. Maybe you too will find a double feature.