Let’s Talk Turkey

Thanksgiving Facts and Fiction

Sources: History.com

In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast and invited a group of the fledgling colony’s Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. Now remembered as American’s “first Thanksgiving”—although the Pilgrims themselves may not have used the term at the time—the festival lasted for three days.

For many Americans, the Thanksgiving meal includes seasonal dishes such as roast turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. But what was really on the menu at the famous banquet, and which of today’s time-honored favorites didn’t earn a place at the table until later in the holiday’s 400-year history?

In “On Plymouth Plantation,” Bradford’s famous account of the founding of Plymouth Colony, he remarked of the fall harvest that year that: “there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc.” Wild—but not domestic—turkey was indeed plentiful in the region and a common food source for both English settlers and Native Americans. But it is just as likely that the fowling party returned with other birds we know the colonists regularly consumed, such as ducks, geese and swans. Instead of bread-based stuffing, herbs, onions or nuts might have been added to the birds for extra flavor.

While no formal record exists, of what happened at the first Thanksgiving. Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow, wrote:

“Turkey or no turkey, the first Thanksgiving’s attendees almost certainly got their fill of meat.” Winslow wrote that the Wampanoag guests arrived with an offering of five deer. Culinary historians speculate that the deer was roasted on a spit over a smoldering fire and that the colonists might have used some of the venison to whip up a hearty stew.

The 1621 Thanksgiving celebration marked the Pilgrims’ first autumn harvest, so it is likely that the colonists feasted on the bounty they had reaped with the help of their Native American neighbors. Local vegetables that likely appeared on the table include onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots and perhaps peas.

Corn, which records show was plentiful at the first harvest, might also have been served, but not in the way most people enjoy it now. In those days, the corn would have been removed from the cob and turned into cornmeal, which was then boiled and pounded into a thick corn mush or porridge that was occasionally sweetened with molasses.

Fruits indigenous to the region included blueberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries, raspberries and, of course cranberries, which Native Americans ate and used as a natural dye.

Culinary historians believe that much of the Thanksgiving meal consisted of seafood, which is often absent from today’s menus. Mussels in particular were abundant in New England and could be easily harvested because they clung to rocks along the shoreline. The colonists occasionally served mussels with curds, a dairy product with a similar consistency to cottage cheese. Lobster, bass, clams and oysters might also have been part of the feast. Colonist Edward Winslow describes the bounty of seafood near Plymouth:

“Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter. We have mussels… at our doors. Oysters we have none near, but we can have them brought by the Indians when we will.”

Whether mashed or roasted, white or sweet, potatoes had no place at the first Thanksgiving. New England’s native inhabitants are known to have eaten other plant roots such as Indian turnips and groundnuts, which they may or may not have brought to the party.

Both the Pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag tribe ate pumpkins and other squashes indigenous to New England—possibly even during the harvest festival—but the fledgling colony lacked the butter and wheat flour necessary for making pie crust. Moreover, settlers hadn’t yet constructed an oven for baking. According to some accounts, early English settlers in North America improvised by hollowing out pumpkins, filling the shells with milk, honey and spices to make a custard, then roasting the gourds whole in hot ashes.

Who Attended the First Thanksgiving?
At the first Thanksgiving, colonists were likely outnumbered more than two to one by their Native American guests. Winslow writes: “many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men.” The preceding winter had been a harsh one for the colonists. Seventy-eight percent of the women who had traveled on the Mayflower had perished that winter, leaving only around 50 colonists to attend the first Thanksgiving. According to eyewitness accounts, among the pilgrims, there were 22 men, just four women and over 25 children and teenagers.

 

Resilience Plays – Eight Original Short Plays

SquareWrights Playwright Group Celebrate Publication
See a Play – Buy a Book

Sunday, December 5th from 5 to 7 p.m.
Book to Benefit Sterling House Community Center

Sterling House Community Center and SquareWrights Playwright Group will celebrate the publication of Resilience Plays, a collection of eight original short plays by SquareWrights members on Sunday, December 5th at 6 p.m. in the all-purpose room at Sterling House Community Center, 2283 Main Street.

The anthology features five works by Stratford playwrights:

For the Violin” by Beatriz Allen,

Zoomed Out” by Mark Lambeck,

Sarabelle Sriracha” by J. Sibley Law,

“Last Breath” by Steven Otfinoski and

The Bright Side” by Orna Rawls.

 In addition, it includes:

“The Portia Cruiser” by Rachel H. Babcock of Branford,

Prisoner 16670” by Jack Rushen of Bridgeport and

“Happier Days” by Jennifer Ju of Milford.

The plays, written during the height of COVID-19, explore various aspects of human resilience in the face of isolation and the challenges of physical and emotional health.

The evening will include remarks from the organizations’ leadership and the presentation of three staged play readings published in the collection, directed by Beatriz Allen and Tom Rushen of Stratford, and Robert Watts of North Haven.

SquareWrights was happy to engage local artist Michael Bonaffini of Derby, who painted a modernized rendition of the Sterling House. A reproduction of the painting is on the cover of the book that will be on sale that evening. The original painting will be presented to Executive Director Amanda Meeson. Proceeds from the sale of Resilience Plays will go to Sterling House.

Reflecting on the upcoming event, Meeson said, “We are lucky to have this partnership with SquareWrights as they uplift the arts in our town while helping fight food insecurity, exactly the social responsibility Sterling House is all about. We are grateful for their generosity and look forward to showcasing Michael’s beautiful portrait in the House. We hope our community will purchase the book and find strength in the stories as we continue to move forward as a ‘Resilient Stratford.’”

Books will be on sale at the event and available to purchase online after November 18th, 2021 for $15. A meet-and-greet book signing with the playwrights will immediately follow the performance.

The event is free, however, reservations are required due to limited seating under COVID restrictions. Proof of vaccination and masks are required. Attendees are encouraged to bring non-perishable food items for donation to the Sterling House food pantry.

For more information and reservations, contact SHCC Special Events Manager Emily Shufrin at eshufrin@sterlinghousecc.org or register at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/squarewrights-one-acts-on-resilience-tickets-208641330837 .

 

 

 

If you ask me…

Westport Playhouse

“Doubt” through November 21st

By: Tom Holehan
Connecticut Critics Circle

The Westport Playhouse is now back for in-house, live stage performances and they’ve selected one of the best plays in recent years to celebrate its reopening.  “Doubt”, John Patrick Shanley’s provocative look at the Catholic Church and its scandalous history of abuse, is now on the boards in Westport and proves to remain a singular, strong drama that should stimulate conversation for days after viewing.

Set in 1964 at a Bronx Catholic Church and school, “Doubt” is dominated by the school’s principal, Sister Aloysius (Betsy Aidem), who begins to suspect something off about the Parish’s new young priest, Father Flynn (Eric Bryant).  She probes his relationship with the male students mostly through information she gleans from Sister James (Kerstin Anderson), a novice nun who is torn between her duty to the principal and her fondness for Flynn.

Winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, “Doubt” is a well-constructed battle-of-wills played out without intermission for a taut 75 minutes.  I have seen the play many times, including the Meryl Street film version in 2008, and it still has the power to challenge and keep one riveted throughout a tense and suspenseful story.  Is Sister Aloysius vindictive and crazy?  Is Father Flynn guilty or just misunderstood?  No matter which side you choose, you will still have your doubts which is very much Shanley’s point.

The four person cast at Westport, which also includes Sharina Martin as the African-American parent of one of Father Flynn’s boys, are uniformly excellent.  The characters are firmly grasped and inhabited by each actor and the fireworks are justly delivered in the final confrontation between priest and nun.  Aidem is a powerhouse as Sister Aloysius, a determined spokesperson for conformity and following the rules.  Bryant’s Father Flynn has the easy charisma to make you believe and sympathize with everything he says.  Miller’s one potent scene is charged with emotion and Anderson exudes warmth as a young woman not prepared for the position she is forced into. This is a very solid company of actors.

There are a few caveats I must lay at director David Kennedy’s feet, however.  The decision to take the play’s subtitle, “A Parable”, fairly literally has the actors reading stage directions before each scene. They are also seen pre-curtain in street clothes preparing for their roles.  This all just seems odd instead of revealing, a chance for a director to needlessly put his own stamp and “gussy up” a script that has been produced numerous times.  The scenic design by Charlie Corcoran has some handsome set pieces, but it is all spread out far too wide especially for scenes that demand more intimacy.  I also couldn’t understand the miming of some props (rosebush, doors) or the reasoning behind moving Sister Aloysius’s desk to a different position for each scene.  To show us various angles? Like a movie?  Not necessary.

But this production of “Doubt”, with its gifted cast, still remains a terrific contemporary drama that escalates and devastates until you are left breathless at curtain.  At Westport, they have done the play proud.

Doubt” continues at the Westport Playhouse through November 21st. For further information visit: www.westportplayhouse.org or call the theatre box office: 203.227.4177.  Patrons are required to wear masks and show proof of vaccination at the door.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

If you ask me…

Music Theatre of Connecticut in Norwalk

Chamber Musical “Falsettoland”

By Tom Holehan
Connecticut Critics Circle

Norwalk’s plucky Music Theatre of Connecticut (MTC) was one of only three professional theatres in the entire country allowed to present live performances during the pandemic and now they are back to a full season of theatre that continued last weekend with the opening of “Falsettoland”.  This wonderful chamber musical by William Finn and James Lapine is an ideal fit for MTC’s intimate stage.

Set in and around New York City in 1981, “Falsettoland” centers around gay dad Marvin (Dan Sklar, terrific), his ex-wife, Trina (Corinne C. Broadbent) and son, Jason (real-life progeny, Ari Sklar) who is about to celebrate his bar mitzvah. The party’s guest list will include Trina’s current husband, Mendel (Jeff Gurner), Marvin’s ex-lover, Whizzer (Max Meyers) and the “lesbians next door”, Dr. Charlotte (Jessie Janet Richards) and Cordelia (Elissa DeMaria).

“Falsettoland” is a combination of three sung-through musicals written in the early 1980s about the neurotic, lovable Marvin.  They include “In Trousers”, “March of the Falsettos” and “Falsettos”, all of which contributed to the current “Falsettoland”.  Jewish identity, the meaning of family and the shadow of the AIDS epidemic (although never mentioned by name) were central themes in all the works and I found the show just as funny, moving and memorable as it was when originally produced.

At MTC, under Kevin Connors brisk and unobtrusive direction, Dan Sklar proves the company’s MVP with his strong vocals and magnetic presence.  His chemistry with Meyers is palpable especially in the touching love song, “What More Can I Say” or when, later in the evening, both men join Richards and DeMaria for the gorgeous ballad, “Unlikely Lovers”. “What Would I Do?”, the musical’s heartbreaking finale, is also sung gloriously by both Sklar and Meyers.

Some of the women tend to be strident and shout lyrics when, especially in a theatre the size of MTC, a subtler approach would work infinitely better. The entire company, however, harmonize beautifully on all the group numbers and every actor has individual moments to really shine here.

Simple set pieces moved by the actors are all that you need for this less-is-more musical and scenic designer Lindsay Fuori accommodates nicely as does Diane Vanderkroeff with the 1980s costumes.

The “tiny band”, comprised of Pianist/Musical Director David John Madore with drums by Steve Musitano/Chris McWilliams, is absolutely right for this particular production.  All told, this is a very special musical given a satisfying production at MTC.

“Falsettoland” continues at the Music Theatre of Connecticut through November 21st. For further information visit: www.musictheatreofct.org or call the theatre box office: 203.454.3883.  Patrons are required to wear masks and show proof of vaccination at the door.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

Literacy Volunteers of Southern Connecticut Names New Director

Literacy Volunteers of Southern Connecticut (LVSCT) has named Suzanne Solensky of Stratford as its next Executive Director. The nonprofit provides free tutoring to adult English language learners in the greater Milford and Stratford communities.

Solensky is an educator, writer, and administrator with a long-standing commitment to mission-driven institutions. After working as a writer, researcher, and editor specializing in science and health, she made a career in higher education and most recently pivoted into consulting and volunteering with nonprofit organizations.

“In some ways being at Literacy Volunteers is like a homecoming,” said Solensky. “After being trained by LVSCT as an ESL (English as a Second Language) tutor in the mid-1990s, I helped a woman from Afghanistan learn English as her children were learning it in school. Seeing the transformation in her life as she became more comfortable with her new country was deeply moving for me.”

Along with experience as a college instructor and academic advisor, Solensky has expertise in team leadership, strategic planning, and project management. She is also an accomplished public speaker who has presented at state, regional, and national conferences in higher education.

Rose Rodrigues, interim President of the Board of Directors, noted, “We are thrilled that Suzanne is here to lead Literacy Volunteers in its next chapter. Tami Jackson, our former director, made Literacy Volunteers a well-respected organization in Milford and extended its reach to neighboring communities. We are now eager for Suzanne to build on that foundation.”

For more than 25 years, Literacy Volunteers has promoted literacy for children and especially for immigrant adults, who seek to learn English to contribute to their new communities. Despite the limitations posed by the pandemic, volunteer tutors spent close to 3,000 hours in 2020 – much of it online – to help students achieve their goals. Last year alone, of the 88 students in tutoring, 15 improved their employability skills, 10 participated more in community activities, 10 became more involved in their children’s education, and three obtained U.S. citizenship – among other accomplishments.

More information about Literacy Volunteers of Southern Connecticut, as well as applications to become a tutor or to receive tutoring, can be found at lvsct.org.

American Globe Center Meeting

Saturday, October 30th, 11 a.m. – Noon
White House on Elm Street

Do you believe in the American Globe Center (AGC)?  Then come to the Shakespeare Property Saturday morning and voice your opinion and have your questions answered about the project.

The AGC is dedicated to building a campus integrated with the natural beauty of the Housatonic waterfront and the Shakespeare Park.  The American Globe Center campus will be an inclusive home for the arts, and for all the people of Stratford.

Tom Edmond Evans, Executive Director and Jim Warren, Artistic Director, will be there to answer questions and get your thoughts on camera for a video all about the AGC!.

The American Globe Center will create a different kind of experience for artists and staff. Amazingly high-quality and engaging performances, but founded on a respectful, equitable, inclusive environment.

Saturday, October 30th from 11 a.m. -Noon at the White House on Elm Street.  They need our support and testimonials and would love to see residents there!

The Ruby and Calvin Fletcher African American History Museum

Grand Opening

Saturday, October 30th at 1 p.m.
952 East Broadway.

The Ruby and Calvin Fletcher African American History Museum is a collection of artifacts which reflect decades of turbulent times for African Americans in the United States during the period of slavery and the Civil Rights movement. It brings visitors up close and personal which is an experience that many have only read about in history books or seen in movies.

The exhibit embraces the teachings of tolerance, diversity, unity and educating people that there was a time when imagery played a significant role in how African Americans were perceived. The artifacts and memorabilia may seem to be difficult to view but they are a part of African American history that needs to be told just as much as the triumphs which were made by African American pioneers and trailblazers.

The exhibit is an opportunity to begin honest conversations regarding a rich and strong history which has historically been maligned. The “Images of America” exhibit is an experience which will  leave lasting impressions and memories.

The museum is a life long dream Jeffery Fletcher, and honors his parents, Ruby and Calvin Fletcher, who migrated from the south during the “Jim Crow” and turbulent Civil Rights movement to Connecticut.

After graduating from high school and college, Jeffery Fletcher began what he refers to one of the many inspirational points in his life that brought him to collecting African American artifacts and memorabilia. Jeffrey spent fourteen years employed within the State of Connecticut Department of Mental Health and twenty one years as a Police Officer in the City of New Haven. Where the community he served was a multi-cultural community comprised of African American and Latino neighborhoods.

And check out their website- https://www.africanamericancollections.com

If you ask me…

Long Wharf Opens Season

by Tom Holehan
Connecticut Critics Circle

“Chinese Lady” Opens Long Wharf Season

Pre-pandemic there seemed to be more drama offstage than onstage at New Haven’s venerable Long Wharf Theatre.  Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein got his own #METOO moment following allegations of sexual misconduct and was summarily dismissed in 2018. Jacob B. Padron then took over the reigns as Artistic Director, announced a new season and Covid then proceeded to cancel all plans.  So, it’s great news that Padron can finally enjoy the beginning of his tenure with the re-opening of the theatre with a great new play.

Lloyd Suh’s “The Chinese Lady” is a fascinating two-character drama based on historical fact about a woman, Afong Moy (Shannon Tyo), who was brought from Beijing to America in 1834 to work as a side show entertainer.  The play covers decades as Afong and her translator, Atung (Jon Norman Schneider), crisscross the country meeting Presidents and eventually working for PT Barnum. Suh’s play is notable for his astute examination of the immigrant experience, loss of identity, the nature of truth and cultural exploitation and appropriation. In 90 concise minutes (without intermission), the play chronicles the American experience through a very different and provocative set of eyes.

Under Ralph Pena’s sensitive direction, the story is given enormous power by the performance of Shannon Tyo, devastating as the young woman whose American journey eventually indicts us all.  I was fortunate to first see the play two seasons ago at the Barrington Stage Company where Tyo was also the star. Time has only improved her performance which is even more nuanced and moving here than it was at Barrington.

Jon Norman Schneider provides invaluable support as Atung, depicting a passive aggressive relationship with both poignancy and great humor.

Technically at Long Wharf, “The Chinese Lady” could not be in better hands starting with an exhilarating sound design by Fabian Obispo and including Junghyun Georgia Lee’s compact set, Linda Cho’s period costumes and Jiyoun Chang’s dramatic lighting.

The play continues at Long Wharf through October 31st. For further information, visit: www.longwharf.org or call the theatre box office: 203.693.1486.

Patrons are required to wear masks and show proof of vaccination at the door.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

Hispanic Heritage Month

September 15th to October 15th

Source: History.com

History

Hispanic Heritage Month began as Hispanic Heritage Week. Hispanic Week was established by legislation sponsored by Rep. Edward R. Roybal of Los Angeles and was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968.

In 1988, the commemorative week was expanded to a month (September 15 to October 15) by legislation sponsored by Rep. Esteban Edward Torres (D–Pico Rivera, CA), amended by Senator Paul Simon, and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. September 15 was chosen as the starting point for the commemoration because it is the anniversary of the Cry of Dolores (early morning, 16 September 1810), which marked the start of the Mexican War of Independence and thus resulted (in 1821) in independence for the New Spain Colony (now Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Nicaragua).

Hispanic Heritage Week was first proclaimed by President Johnson in 1968 in Presidential Proclamation 3869. Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan gave annual proclamations for Hispanic Heritage Week between 1969 and 1988.

National Hispanic Heritage Month was first proclaimed by President George H. W. Bush on September 14, 1989, in Presidential Proclamation 6021. Since 1989, all Presidents have given a Presidential Proclamation to mark Hispanic Heritage Month.

The American Hispanic/Latinx history is a rich, diverse and long one, with immigrants, refugees and Spanish-speaking or Indigenous people living in the United States since long before the nation was established.

And, bringing with them traditions and culture from Mexico, Spain, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and other Latin American and Iberian nations, America’s Hispanic population continues to grow, reaching a record 60.6 million in 2019, or 18 percent of the U.S. population.

Notable events in U.S. Hispanic and Latinx history.

July 2, 1964: The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 becomes law, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, and outlawing discrimination based on race, sex, religion, color or national origin. The act also creates the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to enforce federal job discrimination laws. One immediate effect of the act: an end to segregated facilities requiring Black Americans and Mexican-Americans to use only designated areas.

March 17, 1966: Cesar Chavez, general director of the National Farm Workers Association, leads 75 Latino and Filipino farm workers on a historic 340-mile march from Delano, California to the state capitol in Sacramento. Drawing attention to the demands of grape growers, the march, held at the onset of a strike that would last five years, lasts 25 days, and upon arrival in Sacramento on Easter Sunday, the group is met by a crowd of 10,000. Later that summer, the NFWA merges with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee to form the United Farm Workers union that affiliates with the AFL-CIO.

April 16, 1973: The Dade County Commission unanimously passes a resolution from Miami’s mayor making Spanish the city’s second official language and creating a department of bilingual and bicultural affairs. In 1974, the Florida city is home to 350,000 Cubans who have been fleeing the country under Fidel Castro’s regime for more than 15 years.

November 8, 1973: Maurice A. Ferré is elected Miami’s first Hispanic mayor, also becoming the first Puerto Rican to lead a major U.S. mainland city.

Aug. 6, 1975: President Gerald Ford extends the Voting Rights Act of 1965, with the amended Section 203 mandating that bilingual ballots be provided in certain areas.

April 20, 1980: Fidel Castro announces that Cuban citizens may immigrate to Florida from the port of Mariel with their own arranged boat transport. In the months that follow, 125,000 Cubans flee the country, in what came to be called the Mariel Boatlift. Many of the immigrants were law-abiding citizens and families, but others, called “marielitos” were prisoners, criminals and the mentally ill sent by Castro, causing President Jimmy Carter political woes.

Nov. 6, 1986: President Ronald Reagan signs the Immigration Reform and Control Act into law, granting 2.7 million long-term immigrants permanent legal status, but also imposing restrictions, increasing border security and making it illegal for employers to knowingly hire unauthorized workers.

Multiple Firsts in White House Cabinets

Sept. 21, 1988: Dr. Lauro Cavazos, a Texan, is sworn in by Vice President George H.W. Bush as secretary of education, making him the first Hispanic to serve in a presidential cabinet.

Aug. 29, 1989: Cuban immigrant Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress, later becoming the first woman to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Over 30 years—15 terms—the Republican from Miami served in the Florida House and Senate before representing the state’s 110th District.

1990: Dr. Antonia Novello is appointed the first women and first Hispanic U.S. surgeon general under Bush.

1993
: Ellen Ochoa becomes the first Hispanic woman to travel to outer space.

Jan. 22, 1993: Federico Pena, who previously served as Denver’s first Hispanic mayor, is confirmed by the Senate as U.S. Secretary of Transportation under the nomination of President Bill Clinton, making him the first Hispanic to hold the position. He also spends two years as the first Hispanic Secretary of Energy under Clinton, immediately followed in that role by another Hispanic, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

Jan. 1, 1994: The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the U.S., Mexico and Canada takes effect, establishing a North American trade-free zone and lifting tariffs of most goods. It’s replaced, in 2020, by the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

Aug. 8, 2009: Sonia Sotomayor is sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts as the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice and the third woman to serve on the court. Raised in a housing project in the South Bronx, N.Y., she is the daughter of Puerto Rican parents and previously served on the board of directors for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

2013: Joaquin Castro elected to represent Texas’s 20th congressional district in the United States House of Representatives.

2014: Julián Castro was the youngest member of President Obama’s cabinet, serving as the 16th United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development from 2014 to 2017. Castro served as the mayor of his native San Antonio, Texas from 2009 until he joined Barack Obama’s cabinet in 2014.

If you ask me…

“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” Sings at a Contemporary Theatre (ACT)

By: Tom Holehan
Stratford Public Library

[Editor’s Note: “If you ask me”, as part of The Stratford Crier’s expansion of news of interest to Stratford residents, will become a regular theatre review column. Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle.]

There are several Connecticut venues opening slowly but surely, but the 4-year-old A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) in Ridgefield is the first live theatre I got to experience locally since the pandemic.  And what a joy to hear a catalog of great music by a group of talented performers in ACT’s jubilant revival of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe”, a jukebox musical in the liveliest sense.

With a curtain speech that threatened to be as long as the pandemic-delay of reopening ACT, Artistic Director Daniel Levine welcomed back his supportive audience to a production that, he claimed, only had three weeks of rehearsal.  “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” then proceeded in a brisk and lively 85 minutes (no intermission) with nary an issue or flaw to report.  Good for them!

Subtitled “The Songs of Leiber and Stoller”, the song list here includes such classics as “Neighborhood”, “Poison Ivy”, “Fools Fall in Love”, “Charlie Brown”, “Jailhouse Rock”, “Spanish Harlem”, “Stand by Me” and more than two dozen more.

The revival is performed by a multi-talented cast of five men and three women and directed with zeal and endless creativity by Stephanie Pope Lofgren.  As singers, the cast is perfectly harmonious in group numbers like “Neighborhood”, “DW Washburn” and “Saved”, a gospel number that nearly stops the show.  Several standouts in solos include Albert Guerzon’s dynamic “Ruby”, Kelly MacMillan’s savvy and funny “Don Juan” and Courtney Long’s “Fools Fall in Love” which is initially sung up tempo and then slowed down to torch song perfection later in the evening.

The gifted ensemble also includes Arnold Harper II, Avionce Hoyles, Jordan Fife Hunt, Keyonna Knight and Juson Williams and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is also blessed with a terrific pit band led by John Bronston and six other musicians who somehow managed to sound like twenty.

The creative two-tier setting and crisp lighting design is by Jack Mehler with smart and sassy costuming by Claudia Stefany.  I do wish that Pope hadn’t decided to end most of the songs with a blackout, an action that tends to stop the show cold blunting the otherwise electric momentum.  I also question pumping dry ice in from stage right throughout the proceedings.  The musical doesn’t have to be literally “smoky” on stage.

All told, however, this is a very fine revival of a snappy jukebox musical.  You are guaranteed a good time at ACT.  As the old MGM films used to boast, “Boy, do we need it now!”

“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” continues at A Contemporary Theatre in Ridgefield through October 24th. For further information visit: www.actofct.org or call the theatre box office: 475.215.5433.  Patrons are required to wear masks during the performance and temperatures will be checked at the door.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.