Washington's Arena Stage has diverse offerings, prominent stars

If great theater is your thing, Arena Stage is the place to be. The Southwest Washington, D.C., theater has been on a roll this season, with exceptional plays that covered a broad range of subjects, featuring well-known cast members.

I've always felt that Arena Stage's productions have reflected the diversity of the nation's capital and this season has been no exception. I haven't seen the entire lineup, but many this season fall in that category, such as the by-popular-demand repeat performance of the explosive "One Night With Janis Joplin." In that June production Mary Bridget Davies belted out Joplin's biggest hits with a gusto that had the audience dancing in their seats. The baby boomers and many others turned out in droves.

Next I saw Academy Award winner and television star (Roseanne) Estelle Parsons and two-time Tony Award winner Stephen Spinella in "The Velocity of Autumn," a serious and often funny play about a once vibrant woman trying to hold on to her independence as her memory starts to fade. I loved the set and the acting was, of course, first rate.

In October, Arena's production of "Love in Afghanistan," attracted a very diverse audience. Written by Arena's resident playwright, Charles Randolph-Wright, a fellow South Carolinian, it focused on an African-American hip-hop artist and a high-level Afghanistan interpreter, who fall in love in that war-torn country. The production took a hard look at cultural, religious and political differences between the young couple that attracted newcomers to Arena Stage.

I also went to see Maurice Hines wow the Arena audience in November in "Tappin' Thru Life." This autobiographical show traced the singing, dancing and acting careers of Hines and his brother, the late Gregory Hines — who I had a major teenage crush on — from their youth to adulthood. Hines, who at times seemed to channel his brother on stage, still has the moves and executed them smoothly as he sang and told personal stories, with photos from his family album displayed throughout the show.

Later that month, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Theo of the "Cosby Show," showed he could hold his own in the starring role of the film, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."In the classic film role played by Sidney Poitier in the 1960s, Warner put the theater world on notice that he is ready for prime time. I was so impressed with his acting and stage presence, showing so much growth since "The Cosby Show."

And then there was "The Tallest Tree in the Forest," a one-man show, written and performed by Daniel Beaty in January, that chronicled the life of actor, singer, activist Paul Robeson. There will never be another Robeson, but Beaty did as good a job as any in singing Robeson classics such as "Old Man River," and he was superb as he played 40 characters who touched Robeson's life.

Last month, Kathleen Turner mesmerized the audience in "Mother Courage And Her Children." A close friend didn't like the singing, but I thought it was powerful. Set during the Thirty Years War in 17th-century Germany and Central Europe, the play took a hard-core look at what single mothers, like Turner's character, endured as they tried to make a living in dire situations to keep their children alive and maintain their sanity. Turner owned the stage as she delivered her lines in that so-recognizable and trademark seductive voice. It has not changed with age nor has her strong singing voice.

Up next with an opening on April 3 is "Camp David," a story written by journalist and author Lawrence Wright, about the real-life negotiations that President Jimmy Carter spearheaded to broker a peace agreement between Israel's Prime Minister Mehachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. It stars Tony Award winner and "Brothers and Sisters" star Ron Rifkin and Richard Thomas. I wonder if Thomas will remember when I met him when he starred in "Race" on Broadway and my friend sang the theme of "The Waltons" and called him John Boy when he came out to sign autographs. He laughed and took a picture with us anyway. The show runs through May 4.

So, if you haven't visited Arena Stage, in its magnificent redesigned home, you've been missing out on a lot, but the season isn't over yet. See you there?

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