Theater Night: Celebrating Beginnings

Theater presentation,

Welcome to 2024! A new year means renewed hope, optimism, fresh starts and – for some – a list of resolutions. This month’s column celebrates beginnings. Read on for our curated selection, and happy new year from us to you.

In The Spotlight

Meet Gustavo Ott, GALA Hispanic Theatre’s new Producing Artistic Director. Ott takes on the role after GALA’s co-founder Hugo Medrano passed away unexpectedly in May last year. For almost 50 years, Medrano and his team at the GALA Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights have played a pivotal role in the incubation and propagation of Latino heritage and culture in DC. Nine Helen Hayes Awards are testament to their success.

There’s a bright, humorous sparkle in Ott’s eyes that hints at a precocious temperament as he presents his plans for his Directorship at a December press conference. He’s no stranger to the GALA Hispanic Theatre, having been fast friends with Hugo Medrano and his wife, GALA co-founder Rebecca Medrano,  since 1991. Several of Ott’s plays have been produced by the Theatre, and his new work based on the life of Eva Perón will debut to GALA audiences in May this year.

Ott chuckles as he reflects fondly on his early memories of visiting the theatre while under construction in 2003. He gestures to the elaborate gilded plaster ceiling above him. “Hugo and Rebecca were very excited,” he recalls. “The beautiful ceiling you can see now was covered in plastic. They showed me this huge hall full of construction trash!” Even then, surrounded by debris, Ott respected the powerful potential of the Medrano’s vision. “I realize that imagination is with us all the time. It’s our partner. We’re the ones that leave, but our imagination remains. My friend Hugo may have departed, but his imagination is here. Now you can see the theatre that he imagined.” It’s a heartfelt tribute to someone that Ott clearly respected and cared for deeply.

How to be a Korean
Woman: Guthrie
Theater presentation,
2013. Photo:
Aaron Fenster.

It’s this respect that will guide Ott’s artistic direction at GALA. He plans to continue building on the theater’s highly successful programs like Paso Nuevo and GALita. Paso Nuevo offers theater skills training to high school students between the ages of 14 and 19, equipping them with essential tools for work both in front of and behind the curtain. Playwrighting, acting, makeup, singing, and technical production are all on offer, in addition to the possibility of performing at prestigious venues such as the Kennedy Centre and the Shakespeare Theatre Company. GALita is for GALA’s younger fans and has been teaching children about the importance and relevance of Hispanic culture and identity since 1980. Fully bilingual, GALita also re-interprets classical Hispanic theatre for kids.

Ott believes that art and creativity are the glimmers of hope on a dark horizon. “In a time when war, fascism, pandemics, the idea of extinction is with us, imagination allows us to enjoy being human. I know that I’m here to build on Hugo’s vision.” With Ott at the helm, the GALA Hispanic Theatre looks set to forge a brave new path. “We will create more links with DC artists. We have to reach out to them so that they can find here not only a national theatre for performing art, but also a neighborhood theatre,” Ott declares. “We need to hear our neighborhood talking about the things they worry about and the stories they have to tell. More community means more theatre.”

Liza Bennett

On Right Now
How to be a Korean Woman, Theater JShowing 4 Jan – 14 Jan

In her mid-thirties, Korean adoptee Sun Mee Chomet decided to start a new chapter of her life. With an MFA in Acting at New York University, voted artist of the year by the Minneapolis City Pages, and with a slew of awards under her belt, Chomet seemingly had it all. But the opportunity to meet her birth family in South Korea—and re-examine her identity as an Asian-American raised by a Jewish family in Detroit— was a chance that she couldn’t pass up. Her play How to be a Korean Woman, debuting at Theater J this month, is about her experience.

“I had thought about searching for my birth family when I was younger, but I never felt ready. It’s an extremely emotional journey, regardless of what you might find.” Chomet explains to me over Zoom from Minnesota, where she lives and works. Having been told very little information about where she came from by her adoptive parents, Chomet took the unlikely route of signing up for a Korean reality TV show that attempts to reconnect families separated by processes like adoption. “My 80-year-old birth grandmother saw the show.” Chomet laughs. “She had watched every episode for three years hoping that I was going to be on it.”

Max Gordon Moore

It’s this chaotic, sometimes uncomfortable, often humorous sojourn that Chomet takes us on. Equipped with only minimal set design and her body, Chomet slips easily from one character to the next, unpacking the inner layers of her selfhood on stage like a matryoshka doll. This process, Chomet believes, is something everyone can relate to. “There’s a fluidity in understanding how complex everyone’s family histories are,” she explains. “Seeing my birth grandmother’s hands, seeing her body, and understanding for the first time how I’m going to age, filled up a well inside of me that I didn’t even know was empty.”

Ten years have passed since the play was last performed, so parts of the original production will be revisited. Having been raised in the Jewish faith means that there’s an added level of significance to the performance being hosted at Theater J, and Chomet plans on using this incarnation of her work to address the current conflict in Gaza. “Performing this at Theater J at this moment in time is an opportunity to talk about the complexity of diaspora. This play is for people searching for wholeness. It’s about the human longing to know where you’ve come from.”

Special Mentions
Love, Love, Love,
Studio Theatre
Showing 10 Jan

Are new beginnings possible, or are we destined to repeat the mistakes of our past? “I think it’s a fun fantasy; that we can live in a certain way with a certain modus operandi and yet life happens. Children happen,” answers Liza Bennett, who plays the character of Sandra in Studio Theatre’s production of British playwright Mike Bartlett’s work Love, Love, Love being directed by David Muse. Max Gordon Moore, who plays Sandra’s husband Kenneth, concurs. “You see with Ken and Sandra in the first act, it’s 1967 and they’re bristling against their parents and the way things have been done and how they need to change things. Then they become older, they have kids, and they’re the ones being bristled against! ”

Bartlett’s work tracks Kenneth and Sandra, products of the free-loving 1960s, through their tumultuous lives; from counterculture to comfortable couch in retirement, to fending off attacks by their disillusioned Gen X children. Bartlett’s quick-witted, writing captures the shifting relationships between the characters and the world around them against a backdrop of domesticity and routine. Bring your parents with you to see this one.

Annie, Broadway at The National
Showing 23 Jan – 28 Jan

Director Jenn Thompson’s rendition of the classic musical Annie is currently on a two-year tour, and its essential message of hope and optimism – of living in the moment—is as fresh as it was when first performed on Broadway in 1977. “We always need Annie,” Thompson says. “Annie’s optimism is a choice. She chooses to lift herself up and through that she lifts other people up. That’s the greater message: We don’t have dominion over the world, but we do have over ourselves and how we treat others.”  This one is for kids and adults alike and is the perfect way to kick off the new year.