Theater Night: Transformation and Change

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David James as Cogsworth. Courtesy Toby’s Dinner Theatre

As the weather warms, spring reminds us that nature’s ancient processes of rebirth have a few important lessons to impart. Transformation is not only always possible, but inevitable. If you’re brave enough to lead the charge – like those first tender buds after the last frosts of winter – change often has its own rewards. This month’s column focuses on theater that examines change, transformation, and rebirth in ways both literal and metaphorical.

On Right Now
Beauty and the Beast,
Toby’s Dinner Theatre
Showing Mar 15– Jun 16

It’s a tale as old as time… Girl longs to escape her life of boredom in a sleepy village. Girl tumbles upon a hexed castle. Girl falls in love with a bad-tempered beast who is really a handsome prince under a powerful spell that only true love can break. If this fantastical story sounds familiar, it’s probably because you grew up watching it on the Disney Channel.

Rachel Cahoon. Courtesy Toby’s Dinner Theatre

Like the enchantment that is cast over the titular Beast’s castle and its inhabitants, Beauty and the Beast has bewitched audiences for over 30 years. The stage musical was adapted from the 1991 Academy-Award winning film in 1994, and this month Maryland’s Toby’s Dinner Theatre invites both young and old to experience its interpretation of this lyrical stage adventure. For its 2024 iteration, the theater has paired a newcomer – Rachel Cahoon – in the role of restless, romantic Belle with a Toby’s stalwart – David James – as the uptight but loyal butler/mantel clock Cogsworth.

Perhaps part of Beauty and the Beast’s perpetual allure is that it explores themes of transformation and change in ways both obvious and subtle. It doesn’t hurt that renowned composer Alan Menken’s magical songs weave through the action. “This is the first time I’ve done Beauty and the Beast, and my first time working at Toby’s,” Cahoon says. “Belle talks about change a lot. She wants something different, something new. Something to change her life for the better.” James has been with the Toby’s Dinner Theatre family for over 30 years and is no stranger to the role of Cogsworth. “The first time I did this was in 2005. But it’s great because every time there’s new faces which I love, because I get to work off new people. The climate that we’re in right now, with so much stuff happening in the world, there’s always that ray of hope at the end when we change and learn and grow. There’s always a brighter future. That’s the prominent theme throughout the show which I love.”

The eponymous Toby Orenstein of Toby’s Dinner Theatre has focused on change and transformation for most of her professional career. She formed the Young Columbians – a youth group focused on the performing arts – in 1975 and has unlocked the creative potential of the performing arts for thousands of kids since 1979, when she opened her Maryland theatre. With an array of awards under her belt, Orenstein has remained committed to transforming young minds through creative expression. “Toby has always used her theater as a teaching aid for young audiences,” says James. “Theater is such an important teaching tool for children.”

Gina Daniels stars in Tempestuous Elements at Arena Stage. Photo: Tony Powell.

This play, however, isn’t just for kids. “There’s something about Beauty and the Beast that’s always catered towards people of any generation,” Cahoon points out. “That’s why it’s one of the most iconic Disney movies and musicals of all time. There’s something so humbling about accepting the fact that change is inevitable and that to become a better person you must accept that you’re going to change and grow. That’s the learning element of this show.”

Catch Before Closing
Tempestuous Elements,
Arena Stage
Showing Feb 16 – Mar 17

Hot off the heels of his acclaimed play Monumental Travesties at Mosaic Theater, playwright, director, and actor Psalmayene 24 returns to Arena Stage to direct Kia Corthron’s Tempestuous Elements, a drama focused on a chapter in the life of Anna Julia Cooper, and the ways she transformed African American education forever against impossible odds.

You probably already know who Anna Julia Cooper is without realizing it. This prolific scholar, author, educator and speaker’s ruminations on the significance of freedom appear on pages 24 and 25 of US passports. Tempestuous Elements – the 11th installment of Arena Stage’s Power Play initiative – is part of a rising tide of interest in telling the stories of African American educators and changemakers active in DC in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Also in March, the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum’s Dr. Samir Meghelli opens an exhibition focused on African American art teachers in the city during this tumultuous period of history. It’s high time that these moments of history get the attention they so richly deserve.

“Anna Julia Cooper’s life really epitomizes the essence of reinvention, because this is a woman who was born enslaved and went on to get her PhD from the Sorbonne.” says Psalm. “This idea of transformation, of change, of metamorphosis, is embedded in Cooper’s life.” Tempestuous Elements (the title comes from Cooper’s own writings and refers to the volatile social conditions that Black girls and women frequently endure) covers Cooper’s time at DC’s historic M Street High School, where she was caught up in the crossfire between two opposing teaching methodologies that would pave the way for future African American education in the US. “Anna was dealing with that tension between a classical and a vocational curriculum.” Explains Psalm. “These ideas are embodied by W.E.B Du Bois, who supported the classical curriculum for African Americans, and Booker T. Washington who espoused the vocational approach. But both approaches were about uplifting Black people.”

Psalm has been surrounded by strong Black women his whole life, so for him this play is in-tensely personal. “Her story, for me, feels like coming home.” Who does he hope comes to see it? “Everybody in the DC area. I want Black women to see this play because they get to see a mirror of themselves in some ways. A lot of the hurdles that Anna had to overcome are the same ones that Black women today must deal with.”

Derrick D. Truby Jr. as Seymour and Chani Wereley as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors at Ford’s Theatre. Photo: Scott Suchman

Special Mention
Little Shop of Horrors,
Ford’s Theatre
Showing Mar 15 – May 18

Imagine a strange species of plant that no amount of water or fertilizer seems to satisfy. It’s only when you accidently snag your finger that a drop of blood perks this peculiar perennial right back up. You’ve just met Audrey II, the star attraction of Mr. Mushnik’s florist on Skid Row, and timid shop assistant Seymour Krelborn’s ticket to fame, fortune and possibly even love. But you’d better arm yourself with your gardening shears because Audrey II is about to transform into a voracious, flesh-eating houseplant that threatens to engulf both Mushnik, Seymour, and possibly the entire world!

This is the plot of Ford’s Theatre’s rock-musical rendition of Little Shop of Horrors, directed Kevin S. McAllister and starring Derrick D. Truby Jr. as Seymour and Chani Wereley as Audrey, Seymour’s secret crush and after whom he names his bloodthirsty botanical specimen.

Little Shop of Horrors is a vast and intimidating creative legacy. A plethora of film and musical adaptations, peppered by a host of celebrated actors, have graced stage and screen from the 1960s all the way through to 2019. The origins of the story can be traced back to an 1894 sci-fi novel by H.G Wells. However, for Truby and Wereley, McAllister’s interpretation of this musical – and their contributions as actors of color – is about changing this legacy. “I grew up with the show. I’ve seen the movie so many times!” laughs Wereley. “Being a little Asian girl, I didn’t see myself in Ellen Greene. I latched onto the urchins! But I’m realizing how much I’ve always wanted to play this role. Having the honor of playing Audrey in this theater is really special.” Truby concurs. “It’s a very different show when you have people like us in it. The two of us are not typically the people you’d think would be chosen to play Audrey and Seymour. But we’re given this opportunity. It’s such a huge gift but also a responsibility to pay homage to the communities we come from.”

McAllister’s Little Shop of Horrors promises to show you a rocking good time, but also hint at how urban life is irrevocably transformed by processes such as gentrification, migration, and economic transition.  

An earlier version of this article did not include credit for the photo of Little Shop of Horrors at Ford’s Theatre. It is by Scott Suchman. The Hill Rag regrets the omission.