Brainstorm 5 – Fraughtimore Uprising

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Brainstorm 5, Photo Credit: Allyson Washington Photography

A REVIEW BY RIVER STYX

Glass Mind Theatre is doing what every theater company wants to do: making art that’s relevant. In the company’s fifth iteration of its annual short play Brainstorm festival, Freddie Gray and #BaltimoreUprising is the common thread through seven short plays by Baltimore area writers.

It’s the theatrical culmination of sharing thoughts and opinions of the complicated issues brought to the surface in Baltimore over the past two months. Friday’s performance was exactly two months after Freddie Gray was arrested – enough time for peaceful protests to turn into an incendiary city that national and international media swarmed to before swarming on to Caitlyn Jenner, McKinney, Texas and Rachel Dolezal. Glass Mind is saying “oh, this didn’t go away, and we still have things to say about it.”

The deeply felt focus of this year’s Brainstorm makes for some stellar short plays. You couldn’t be in Baltimore the last two months and not have a lot of emotions and thoughts about the unrest in our city. And who has more feels than theater people? The evidence of deep thoughts and emotions unfolds beautifully in the seven plays included in Brainstorm 5.

Prince, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and ignorant white people get poked fun at throughout the hour and a half Brainstorm. Glass Mind veteran Jessica Ruth Baker opens Brainstorm with as spot-on impersonation of Larry Hogan as a tattooed young woman in knee-high socks using “business” as a noun, adjective, verb and expletive could be. And the idea that Prince helped or healed Baltimore in any way is debunked in multiple plays.

“A bunch of black people broke some shit, and Prince came to fix it,” a white character explains in one of the standout plays of Brainstorm, “Stan the Man is Back in Town,” which is written by recent high school graduate Mattie Bayne. Bayne’s farce focuses on middle-aged Stan, who, on his return from two weeks in the Bahamas, finds 200 unread texts and a deep regret for having missed Prince in Baltimore. Stan (Alexander Scally, oh I’ll get to this guy later) and his out-of-touch white neighbor Pat (Rob Vary, Brainstorm’s go-to young white everyman) seek out a black person to speak for all black people and explain the reasoning behind the uprising – Mark (Marshall Glaze) is “Stan the Man’s” eloquent and wise black person. This tactic is also used in “Why Are They Rioting Question Mark Exclamation Point,” by Justin Lawson Isett. This play’s articulate black person speaking for all black people is Thembi (Dana Woodson), who, like Mark, talks about systematic oppression, institutionalized racism and the endless cycle of poverty.

The sole straight play in the seven works is Alexander Scally’s “Chalked,” which touches on gentrification, racism and poverty, and ends with a lovely poem read by 40-year neighborhood resident Leonard (played by DCarter, who stepped up to take on the role Tuesday when the originally cast actor dropped out because of a particularly heinous spider bite, according to one of the festival’s directors).

“Stan the Man,” “Why Are They Rioting” and “Good Morning Baltimore” are the three farces in Brainstorm. “Good Morning Baltimore,” by Mike Smith, tells the story of the rioting at Penn and North from the perspective of an all-white local TV news team.

The festival also includes three plays that present creative interpretations of specific events related to Freddie Gray and the unrest – through the lens of an acting class (“Theatre Games: Baltimore Edition,” by Julie Lewis), an alternate reality where two black people are invisible (“Outside the Line of Vision,” by Sarah Weissman) and a blatantly metaphorical baseball game (“Deep Reverence,” by Rich Espey).

“Theatre Games” is another standout, not just because it offers a framework for students in the acting class to re-enact several events from the uprising that a lot of us remember seeing on Twitter and Facebook and talking about (the kid who turned himself in for breaking a window and got bail set at $500K; the difference in treatment of those who broke curfew; Freddie Gray’s arrest), but because of Trustina Fafa Sabah’s athletic, powerful choreography and direction (Sabah also brings this mesmerizing, physical direction to Freddie Gray as an Orioles game metaphor “Deep Reverence,” which takes the baseball analogy to an extreme with a very creative script and production, but somewhat uneven metaphorical success. Baseball is really fun and easy to metaphor the h out of, but I’m looking forward to seeing an edited version of “Deep Reverence”).

Scally, who looked like he’d been through five hours of “Sweatin’ to the Institutional Racism” by the end of the night, gets Brainstorm 5 MVP. Glass Mind company member alum Scally is in six of the seven plays (all but the one he wrote), playing leading characters in four. He kills it as a clueless returning tourist, TV anchor, ham sandwich-eating Hunt Valley husband, acting student, umpire/cop and playwright.

Shout-out to actor pinch hitter Rozelle Polido as spoiled birthday girl, eccentric acting instructor and Freddie Gray. This petite Filipino is scene-stealing in an ensemble of excellent actors who all play multiple characters – Erin Boots, DCarter, Lee Conderacci, Dominic Gladden, Marshall Glaze, Alexander Scally, Roby Vary, Kay-Megan Washington (#WCW for sure – hello, stage presence) and Dana Woodson.

Glass Mind threw this festival together in three weeks, with most plays getting only two two-hour rehearsals (some only used 45 minutes of each rehearsal). The original theme for this year’s Brainstorm was “Bound,” but when Freddie Gray’s death and the riots happened, Glass Mind’s team decided to shift the theme to reflect current events. Good choice.

The entire Brainstorm 5 team hit it out of the park. DIY Baltimore Theater World Series rings for all! There’s even interesting lighting (props to Chris Allen) and relevant musical interludes compiled by festival director Susan Stroupe – smatterings of Prince, “Good Morning Baltimore,” Enrique Iglesia’s “Hero,” Kanye West’s “Heard ‘Em Say,” “Orioles Magic,” “Down in the Hole” (“The Wire” theme song), and others.

Brainstorm is pay what you can, with a portion of proceeds going to No Boundaries Coalition, a resident-led initiative to bring together communities across race, class and neighborhood lines. The festival is one weekend only, with shows at 8 pm Saturday, June 13, and 4 pm Sunday, June 14. Performances are in the Copy Cat building at 1511 Guilford Ave.

THE BOTTOM LINE:  For art that continues the conversation of complicated issues around Freddie Gray, go see Brainstorm 5. Relevance to current events in seven funny and thoughtful plays by Baltimore area writers and a winning team of organizers, directors and artists who worked their asses off to create a compelling, thoughtful and entertaining night of theater makes Brainstorm 5 a must-see this weekend.

SECOND OPINION?

Contact Styx at:  riverstyxemail@gmail.com.

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