Initial Fame: Film, theater and television actor/director D.L. Hopkins is addicted to audiences

 

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December 25, 2017

‘Wine in the Wilderness’ message as current now as it was 50 years ago

By JULINDA LEWIS Special correspondent

 

With “Wine in the Wilderness,” the Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company presents a provocative play that is a focused look at how race, gender and class tear at the fabric of a black population struggling to define a sense of community and purpose.

Written nearly 50 years ago, this work by Alice Childress seems as current now as then. The play’s action is placed squarely in the turbulent 1960s.

Racial tension is high. People are rioting in the streets, looting stores and destroying property. There is a gaping economic and educational chasm between the classes. Black women are often viewed as being too sexualized, too strong and not feminine enough. Terms such as Afro-American and African-American and racial slurs are being hotly debated.

During this turbulent time in Harlem, Bill Jameson (Rakeem Laws), an educated artist and son of a family of postal workers, is searching for a down-and-out model to pose for the final painting in his triptych on black womanhood.

His friends Sonny-Man (Foree Shalom) and Cynthia (Muslima Musawwir) meet Tommy/Tomorrow Marie (Dorothy “Dee-D” Miller) in a bar where people have gathered to get away from the rioting.

Tommy seems to be Jameson’s perfect model, but trouble begins when the couple let her think they are introducing her to him as a potential date.

As Tommy later points out, Bill and Sonny-Man refer to the sister and the black man, but never to my sister. Tommy, an uneducated, crude but highly perceptive black woman, is the first to notice there is no “we-ness” in their talk. She is the only one to ask Old Timer (Toney Q. Cobb) what his name really is, subtly demonstrating what some would call “home training” and others would call an inherent sense of respect for others.

Miller is a standout as the sensitive, unschooled yet highly intelligent Tommy. Her physical transformation, after removing her wig and mismatched clothes, is stunning. Her demeanor changes along with her wardrobe. She becomes the catalyst for change.

This production might have been a challenging undertaking, but Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company has done a remarkable job bringing “Wine in the Wilderness” to life.

D.L. Hopkins, in his first directorial spin with Heritage, is teamed with an excellent script, a creative crew and a cast eager to make these characters real.

Laws at first seems too large (physically and dramatically) for the space, but not as we gain insight into his character, Bill Jameson. While educated and talented, the arrogant and disconnected Jameson exists in his own reality — a man creating an ideal vision.

Artistic director Margarette Joyner, who is also the show’s stage manager and set designer, and her crew have created a colorful and appropriate set. Hopkins’ sound design and LaWanda Raines’ costumes are among the show’s highlights. Miller’s mismatched outfit and wig, both of which she keeps adjusting, are accompanied by humorous and endearing body language.

“Wine in the Wilderness” is a story worth experiencing.

Julinda Lewis is a dancer, teacher and writer living in eastern Henrico County. Contact her at jdldances@yahoo.com.

Film Review: “Loving” Is More Than Just a History Lesson

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“Loving” has one of those movie plots that seems preposterous, like it could happen only in the movies.

A man and a woman of different ethnic backgrounds in the American South are arrested and threatened with prison time by a judge — for being married. It would be a laughable example of over-the-top racism, and should be, if, sadly, it weren’t true.

The film dramatizes the ordeal of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), a white man and a black woman in Caroline County arrested in 1959 for marrying in defiance of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. Hauled before a judge, the couple is given an ultimatum: dissolve their marriage and spend a year in jail, or leave the state for a 25-year probation period. The choice is simple: There is no choice.

Simply reminding contemporary audiences that such a thing could and did happen in 20th-century America — at a time when we had cars and color television, and were about to send men to the moon — is powerful enough. But “Loving” is much more than a history lesson. Though the Lovings eventually are able to bring their grievance before the Supreme Court in a famous civil-rights case that had sweeping results, the film focuses on their simple daily struggle to be happy.

It’s in that struggle that the film finds its most eloquent statements. The court cases, in Virginia and the nation’s capital, are brief interludes. We spend the majority of the time breathing in the simple lives of Richard and Mildred, who are trying to raise three children under the specter of a society that doesn’t want them to succeed. Richard is a hardworking bricklayer. Mildred is a stay-at-home mother. The two seem an otherwise typical husband and wife in the early 1960s.

The peace of their lives is threatened only by the laws banishing them from their home state. Subtly, “Loving” shows us what a hardship it is to have to move from the wide-open countryside of Caroline County to the comparatively cramped and ugly lower-class row houses of Washington. When the two arrive for the first time, Mildred, heavy with child, takes a long look at a little rectangle of grass that serves as a meager reminder of the acre of land Richard purchased right before they were exiled.

The children must grow up playing in the street, not in the pasture their father intended for them. Car horns and sirens plague the night. A future that promised simple pleasures becomes tedious and dreary. They don’t want to be there, but seem to be stuck.

At this point it’s fair for a viewer to wonder why the city was the only option, as there are similar rural areas of Maryland not too far away. But such questions arise not because the film seems false, but because it rings so true. The gross unfairness to the Lovings, the requirement that they and not the backward authority readjust, makes us yearn to reach back in time and help them.

“Loving” was shot in many parts of Virginia, including Richmond — local actors Coby Batty, D.L. Hopkins and Scott Wichmann, to name a few, appear in the film — suggesting sad ironies. It seems a lovely place and time to raise a family, as long as you aren’t like the Lovings. Although eventually they’re able to rent a house in secret not far from their relatives, they live in constant fear of being discovered and sent to prison.

Richard is followed home one day from work, and in another scene finds a clue that someone realized his family’s secret. His imagination terrifies him, and for understandable reasons. The furtive life presented by “Loving” — constant vigilance about being discovered by the government simply for living — brings to mind Nazi Germany and the condition of Jews during the waning years of World War II. The sheriff who initially arrests Richard and Mildred wears a uniform that seems period accurate, and also extremely fascist.

“Loving” isn’t likely making these grandiose analogies on purpose. They just exist. The film merely presents the facts, but presents them with such a stark human face we can’t help drawing conclusions of our own. Edgerton and Negga are remarkable as Richard and Mildred, as is Marton Csokas in his role as an imperious rural sheriff. These characters remind us that unthinkable prejudice and discrimination require individuals as well as institutions. Luckily for the Lovings, there were also forces on the other side. (PG-13) 123 min.

Video Flashback: Tim Kaine’s Cameo in a Slice Commercial

It’s been 15 years, but we can still recall the time a then-mayor Tim Kaine represented the city in a commercial for the soft drink Slice.

A campaign called “Get a Slice of the City” by Richmond-based Burford Advertising sent the Slice Man — played by Richmond actor and spoken-word poet d.l. Hopkins — across town spreading the fizzy sweet citrus drink.

  • Local actor and spoken-word poet d.l. Hopkins declares, “Hey Richmond, the Slice Man has arrived!”

He runs into kids, a bus driver, rappers, then-police chief Jerry Oliver and Kaine, who says, “Slice Man, I’d like to present you with this key to our great city.”

Back in Style’s 2001 Best of Richmond issue, voters named Kaine as having the “Best sense of humor in a public official”:

What po-faced county politician could compete with Tim Kaine in this category? After all, he’s a mayor who in one TV commercial cheerfully gives the so-called Slice Man the “keys to the city” — which very obviously are the mayor’s own car keys. (True, he did express regret about taking part in the commercial — after the fact. But that’s probably because he saw it.)

So hey, Mayor Kaine, be funny for us! “Um,” he replies. “It’s hard to be put on the spot and just be funny. But I will say that a good sense of humor is a survival instinct in politics. It makes it much more pleasant and survivable.” (Yes, he really does talk like that, in perfect, bite-sized sentences.) “I guess I’ll just refer to a quote from the British playwright Joe Orton. He once said, ‘Man is profoundly bad and irresistibly funny.’ And I firmly believe that.”

A mayor who quotes Orton? Who knew? That’s probably why second place went to “Do any of them have a sense of humor?” The answer, oh ye of little faith, is Yes. And we’ve got him.

And now, on with the show. Because user anachronissmo on the r/RVA subreddit posted a link to that long-lost commercial.

 

Getting Radical Preview: “No Exit” is the latest envelope-pushing element of Firehouse Theatre’s overhaul.

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There’s a new coat of red paint being applied to the distinctive exterior of the Firehouse Theatre on the day I interview producing artistic director Joel Bassin.

In the course of our wide-ranging conversation, it becomes clear that while covering up its facility’s wear and tear is relatively easy, pushing the recently embattled company to a new level of relevance is difficult.

But Bassin, who arrived in Richmond in November after decades working in New York, has embraced the challenge in a determined, creative way that’s already shaking up the local arts establishment. While most companies announced their 2015-’16 seasons in the spring, Bassin waited until summer — and then he rolled out a comprehensive overhaul of the Firehouse’s programming in a package dubbed Radical Change.

The initiative takes a three-pronged approach to promoting a broader spectrum of performances, offering a reduced number of traditional plays, three versus the standard four or five, but a greatly expanded number of Fringe productions and an evolving Studio series of experimental works.

“Everyone [in the business] understands that the landscape for nonprofit performing arts organizations has changed dramatically and yet everyone still adheres to the local house style that’s been entrenched for years,” Bassin says. “If we are going to break down barriers to admission and bring in new audiences, we’re going to need to take risks and find new models.”

Bassin hardly comes off as a radical. While he easily throws out bold challenges to the status quo, he does so with such an unassuming and quick-to-smile manner that it’s hard not to be charmed. If anyone can move the Firehouse beyond the drama that embroiled its 22-year-old company in 2013 — when founding artistic director Carol Piersol left in a dispute with its board of directors — Bassin seems like the guy to do it.

Progress is evident. The first production under Radical Change, a musical about obsessive compulsive disorder titled “The Boy in the Bathroom,” opened in July to a well-received run (see our review page 20). The upcoming Fringe production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential classic, “No Exit,” seeks to solidify the inroads that Bassin has made so far.

The Firehouse is co-producing the show with director James Ricks, and it will star some of Richmond’s finest actors, including two of Style’s 2015 Best of Richmond reader poll actor picks, Evan Nasteff and Bianca Bryan. It also will be the latest in actress McLean Jesse’s nearly nonstop run of highly acclaimed productions.

Arriving in town three years ago, Jesse quickly established herself as a leading talent, and over just the last six months has starred in 5th Wall’s “The Human Terrain,” Cadence Theatre’s “A Lie of the Mind” and TheatreLab’s “The Altruists.” She thinks people who may vaguely recall “No Exit” from high-school lit class are going to enjoy seeing it brought to life.

“There’s a ’40s-era formality to the play’s language,” she says, “but it tackles very contemporary issues.” The play contains Sartre’s famous line, “Hell is other people,” and Jesse adds: “I think people will leave wondering what their own personal hell would be.”

The actress was cast in a show at the Firehouse when the brouhaha erupted. She says the participation of Ricks, who directed her in “Twelfth Night” in 2013, lured her back.

“James was like a bridge back to being comfortable working there,” Jesse says. “Joel has been wonderful, very friendly and supportive. To open up his theater and allow James to co-produce was very trusting.”

Bassin sees himself as open to opportunity rather than trusting. He also understands that building relationships in the community is the only way he will succeed.

“Artists create energy and energy creates audiences,” he explains, which is the reason he’s opening up the theater to such wide-ranging entertainment as burlesque shows, magic acts and Tickle Me Tuesday comedy performances. “Our Fringe productions may each bring in its own audience,” he says, “but they help people become comfortable with the space and the experience and eventually, encourage them to sample the other programming we’re offering.”

Beyond fostering a busy venue, Bassin says he sees a potential long-term benefit in promoting the Firehouse as an incubator for new artistic endeavors: “Maybe one day a burlesque artist will start working with a poet they meet here and then bring in a musician. They’ll create the next big thing, take it to Broadway, and make us all a million dollars.” S

“No Exit” will run at the Firehouse, 1609 W. Broad St., starting Aug. 14. Tickets and information are available at firehousetheatre.org.

Richmond Magazine: On the Set of ‘Legends & Lies’

On the Set of ‘Legends & Lies’

A behind-the-scenes look at Fox News’ new Wild West series

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March 26, 2015

Three men with long, unkempt hair and tattered clothes hobble straight out of 1867 and across a sloping field, herded by horseback soldiers in blue. They’re being brought back to the camp they abandoned just a short while ago. Their hands are tied and one bleeds from his head. The hapless trio is forced to the ground at the edge of camp, as a tall officer with long, blond locks enters on horseback and barks orders for no one to aid the wounded deserter. He sneers down from atop his steed, conveying as much grim disdain as his facial expressions can muster. This golden-haired rider is none other than the infamous Gen. George Armstrong Custer. He shouts more orders to his troops, then turns and exits the scene.

A moment passes, and the world of the Custer-era Kansas prairie lingers on.

Finally, Kevin Hershberger yells, “Cut!”

Then, the scene falls apart. People begin to move in and out of the set of canvas tents and campfires. Soldiers and horses pass by the camera crews and sound guys. The scene is reset. The deserters head off on their failed escape route and return to the edge of the field with the soldiers for another take.

It’s the next to last day of shooting on Virginia Department of Corrections property in Goochland County, and for the cast and crew of Legends & Lies: Into the West, a Fox News Channel series set to air its first two episodes on April 12, it’s the end of a long and storied ride.

Watching the drama unfold on the afternoon of March 12 is a crowd of about 30 — a mix of Custer’s ill-fated 7th Cavalry Regiment and the crew filming them. There’s the art director, special effects supervisor, horse wrangler, camera operators, sound crew and a litany of others. In the middle of it all is Hershberger.

Director of Legends & Lies and president-founder of LionHeart FilmWorks, Hershberger moves quickly about the set, corralling all the pieces for the next take. Then he gives the order: “Quiet on set!” A hush settles over the scene — the deserters, soldiers, crew, Custer and even the horses. Everything seems to draw a breath in limbo.

“Action!”

And the Kansas prairie comes to life again.

As Hershberger describes it, the Legends & Lies series comprises 10 episodes, each featuring an iconic figure of the Old West. Among them are Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok, Bass Reeves, Davy Crockett, Jesse James, Custer and a handful of others. “All these characters are being explored in kind of a truth-behind-the-legend [approach],” Hershberger says. Each episode will be in the neighborhood of 45 minutes, consisting of “mostly live-action recreations, with very little archival, very little talking heads and historians.”

The scene being shot this afternoon examines one such truth about Custer: the general’s notorious temper. Set in the years of the 7th Cavalry’s exploits on the plains of Kansas enforcing the westward push of settlers amid Native American resistance, Custer’s cold-hearted reaction to his deserting soldiers shows the supposed man behind the myth; a proud leader whose over-confidence led him and his men to their end at the Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana. Hershberger points to a looming hill to the right of the current scene. “Yep,” he says, “[Custer] got killed in the Battle of Little Bighorn just over that ridge. It was perfect on camera.”

The production has been ongoing since October, with a total of 61 days spent shooting in four states, from the desert backdrops of Tucson, Arizona, to the plains of Texas and even a one-day shoot in Pennsylvania involving a 19th-century train. But the majority of the series has been produced in Virginia, where LionHeart FilmWorks is based.

Bill O’Reilly, host of The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News, is the executive producer of the series, which is produced by Montana-based Warm Springs Productions. Warm Springs, which brought Hershberger’s company into the project, is handling the film editing.

Specializing in historical reproductions, LionHeart can “literally turn on a dime and make history come to life,” Hershberger says. “We didn’t have a lot of lead-time, so we had to know our business and move quickly to get the show shooting in an incredibly short amount of time.” Despite the initial short notice and trials throughout the production ranging from a Texas ice storm, to the challenges of using live horses for each episode, to the constant wrangling of the many parts that make up a project of its scale, Hershberger says the production has been a success.

Filming has since wrapped, and the show is being finalized for its premiere on April 12 at 8 p.m. The first episode to air will tell the story of the outlaw Jesse James, followed by an episode involving Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. After that, the series will air every Sunday at 8 p.m., with the previous week’s episodes replaying Saturday night.

“Race” at the Virginia Repertory Theatre

David Mamet’s 2009 Broadway play, “Race,” focuses on two lawyers defending a well-to-do white man charged with raping a black woman. Carol Piersol and the African American Repertory Theatre’s production sets up a tension-filled exploration of racial relations. The only laughs it seeks to elicit are of the nervous variety. Directed by Bill Patton and starring Billy Christopher Maupin, D.L. Hopkins, Katrinah Carol Lewis and Joe Inscoe, the play is filled with the taut wordplay and plot twists that define Mamet’s work. Avoid this production if you put a premium on social niceties. But if you’re comfortable with being made to feel uncomfortable, don’t miss this provocative work. “Race” premieres Thursday, Nov. 29, at the Virginia Repertory Theatre. For ticket information and show times, call 282-2620 or go to va-rep.org.

http://www.styleweekly.com/richmond/race-at-the-virginia-repertory-theatre/Content?oid=1992558

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The Next Act

The African American Repertory Theatre has a new artistic director. Veteran local actor D.L. Hopkins replaces Derome Scott Smith, who resigned in September for health reasons, after founding the company in 2002.

Hopkins, 43, has acted in several of the theater’s productions and directed its most recent, “Fences,” in November. Near the end of that show’s run, Hopkins says that Smith told him that he was stepping down. There was some concern in the theater community about the future of the theater after Smith’s resignation and the recent cancellation of its next scheduled production, “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Hopkins accepted the position one week ago.

“We’re still here,” Hopkins says. “The state of our union is strong.”

After years of experience in production, Hopkins says he is learning the business side of theater, as he works with the theater’s board of directors to restructure the company. “One of the things I’d like to do is really revamp and establish AART as a force to be reckoned with in this area,” he says. “Strengthen the company, make it a company that young actors of all stripes seek to do work with and become a part of.”

Hopkins says that the company’s next production may be announced in September. A new web site will launch in early March.

http://www.styleweekly.com/richmond/the-next-act/Content?oid=1668315

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The Slice Man Cometh

Richmond first felt the cultural impact of d.l. Hopkins in 2000 with his appearance in Slice soft-drink ads, famously receiving a key to the city from then-Mayor Tim Kaine. But his more lasting influence has been as one of the founders of the local spoken-word movement.

Like a poetic Johnny Appleseed, Hopkins seems to leave verse springing up in his wake. He’s taught and promoted poetry through years of work with Art 180 and James River Writers, but his establishment of the Just Poetry Slam took spoken word to a new level locally.

Starting with small gatherings in summer 2004, the competitive Slam quickly grew into a major draw for local writers and by fall had moved to the Firehouse Theatre to accommodate the crowds.

Since then, local participation in poetry events has risen dramatically, with the first-ever Richmond slam team traveling to the 2006 national competition and a local student placing second in the statewide “Poetry Out Loud” competition.

An accomplished stage actor, Hopkins recently completed a stint as artist-in-residence at the University of Richmond and will appear in an episode of “The Wire” on HBO. He says his focus always has been on inspiring young people, and he’ll be working to revamp the Just Poetry Slam to draw more high-school and college-age participants.

He’s also working to help change the image of the spoken-word movement. “People think poetry is a bunch of angry people getting together to shake their fists,” he says. “People come to the slams and see that it’s just … people expressing themselves.”

 

http://www.styleweekly.com/richmond/the-slice-man-cometh/Content?oid=1368690

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Compromised by Fits and Starts

But Horovitz’s play reaches neither the dramatic heights nor the philosophical depths of these other works. While much of the blame should be laid at the playwright’s feet, the folks at the Firehouse don’t do him many favors with this production either. Jim Hillgartner plays medical researcher Aaron Keyes. He has a daughter Rebecca (Jen Meharg), whom he rarely sees, and a housekeeper, Alice (Diana Carver), who is more a friend for hire than a maid. His assistant Thomas (d.l. Hopkins) is Alice’s son and possibly Rebecca’s lover. Aaron is on the threshold of a career-defining breakthrough when his life suddenly seems to spin out of control: His estranged alcoholic wife lands in the hospital, and Thomas unloads a backlog of resentment on him in a wide-ranging tirade.

While the pieces of something intriguing are here, the drama erupts only in fits and starts; no two scenes flow together smoothly, and most of the big moments fall flat. Part of the problem lies in the show’s technology: Aaron makes regular video diary entries that provide clunky chunks of exposition, and all communication with Rebecca is through instant messages projected on a screen above the stage. Hillgartner’s performance is disorganized and uneven, while Hopkins (possibly hampered by a cold) never really inhabits his character. Meharg’s performance might be the best of the four, but it’s also partially obscured by a screen throughout the play. Carver has a few nice moments near the end, but she can’t rescue a production as compromised as this one. S

“Compromise” plays at Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St., Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. through March 25. Tickets are $10-$20. Call 355-2001.