Cadence, Rhythm, Flow: An Interview with Vietgone Composer Shammy Dee Part One

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

By Elspeth Sweatman

Vietgone composer Shammy Dee began performing at a young age, but it was in junior high school that he discovered his medium: hip-hop and the smooth turntables of the DJ deck. Since releasing his debut album Transcripted Thoughts in 2006, Shammy Dee has produced and performed on many other music projects, such as DJing for top brands including Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo, and Burberry, as well as for celebrities including Mary J. Blige, Michael Bublé, and the Kardashians. In anticipation of Vietgone’s hip-hop takeover this Thursday, we sat down with Shammy Dee to chat about his process and the inherent energy of hip-hop. This is Part One.

DJ and hip-hop artist Shammy Dee. Photo by Robbie Jeffers.
What’s your favorite thing about Vietgone?

It’s good writing. I love the comedy of it. At first, the premise of the play—a love story based during the Vietnam War—didn’t sound like something I would relate to, but I found myself really caring for these characters and hoping that it would all work out, which obviously it did because Qui exists. When I first read the raps and heard them, I was like, “Oh cool. Qui’s a head, a hip-hop head.” If you’re a fan of hip-hop culture, you’ll catch the writer’s subtle nods and winks to hip-hop artists like JAY-Z. And that’s a dope moment. It pulls you into the play.

How did you go about creating the music for this production?

Over the course of a couple weeks, I read through the play multiple times, making notes about the impulses that I had, ideas that I thought could fit. Then I created multiple versions, at least three passes—if not more—of each song. What was interesting was when I showed these versions to Jaime [Castañeda, Vietgone's director], he gravitated toward my initial impulses, the passes that are very organic, with not a lot of synthesizers or samples. So we’re leaning toward acoustical instruments: drums, guitars, strings. When we grouped all the passes we liked together and listened back, we found the common thread to them was the organic feel.

Composer Shammy Dee. Photo courtesy Shammy Dee.
What does hip-hop add to Vietgone?

Hip-hop makes it more accessible. The play definitely stands on its own—the writing is that strong—but music has a sneaky way of connecting people who wouldn’t connect otherwise. Hip-hop also gives the show an energy that you wouldn’t get if it was a traditional play. With hip-hop theater, songs can either create additional context or expand a moment. You can dig deeper into an emotion with a song, rather than saying “I’m upset.” Music can create that feeling, just like a movie score does. These songs in Vietgone pull you in because, just like with Hamilton and other hip-hop theater pieces, you’re experiencing storytelling in a different way.

Vietgone runs through April 22 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Join us at The Strand this Thursday, March 1 for an evening of hip-hop music, culture, and conversation. Enjoy discounted drinks and live music mixed by DJ Shammy Dee beginning at 6 pm, and a postshow panel featuring director Jaime Castañeda, playwright Qui Nguyen, DJ Shammy Dee, and hip-hop historian Jeff Chang. Want to learn more about the hip-hop in Vietgone? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Breaking Binaries: M.F.A. Third-Year Actors Present The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

Thursday, February 22, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

Is mankind inherently good or evil? This long-debated question is at the center of Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’s dark comedy, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. “In a society plagued by the need to define everything from identity to justice in a binary,” says director David Mendizábal, “it is in the gray area that we will find discovery, change, and progress.” The M.F.A. Program’s third-year actors will be tasked with unpacking this heady idea in their last full-length production as M.F.A. students. To celebrate its opening at The Rueff tonight, we talked to four of the actors—Lily Narbonne (Fabiana Aziza Cunningham), Vincent J. Randazzo (Judge/Caiaphas the Elder), Oliver Shirley (Butch Honeywell/Saint Peter), and Justin Edward Keim (Simon the Zealot/Sigmund Freud/Saint Thomas)—about diving into the gray area and performing as the class of 2018 for the final time.

M.F.A. third-year actors Justin Genna, Adrianna Mitchell, Oliver Shirley, and Peter Fanone in
rehearsal for The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Photo courtesy @ACTMFA2018 on Instagram.
What has your experience been like acting in this play?

Randazzo: What's been really great about working on this play is the muscle of Guirgis. For the past three years we've studied argument in Shakespeare and Shaw, and to apply that education to a contemporary writer like Guirgis has been really helpful, especially since this is a courtroom drama (albeit a very heightened one). So it's this fun mix of dense, heightened text but also this rough-and-tumble vernacular.

Narbonne: Playing Cunningham has been a wonderful challenge. Of all the large roles I’ve played , this is the first woman whose character is not concerned with love or her social status. This play is really about the big questions having to do with the history of Christianity, the existence of God, justice and mercy.

How do you hope audiences will respond to this production?

Shirley: I hope audiences will walk away with a renewed sense of how complex issues of “right and wrong” and “good and bad” can be. Things today often get categorized into one or the other, and what this play asks of its audience is to consider the gray area.

The M.F.A. Program class of 2018 in rehearsal for The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.
Photo courtesy @ACTMFA2018 on Instagram.
What does it feel like knowing that this is the final time the class of 2018 will be performing a full-length show as M.F.A. students?

Keim: Sad as all hell. I never want to stop working with these people. Over the last three years we have created such a cohesive "company"; it feels like we can do anything together. We know so much about each other—our ticks, what makes us laugh, what makes us cry—we can pull so much out of each other. It truly is a gift to work with people you feel so connected to; that's where the best work comes from. But the more I think about the connection I've made with these incredibly talented artists, the more I am confident that I'm going to hunt these people down in the future to work with me. This ride ain't over.

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot runs February 22 through March 3 at The Rueff at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco. Click here to purchase tickets.

The Mischievous Artist: An Interview with Vietgone Playwright Qui Nguyen Part One

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

By Michael Paller

Growing up in Arkansas with Vietnamese refugee parents, Qui Nguyen loved hip-hop, action movies, and comic books. So when he began writing plays, he filled them with these passions: martial arts in Begets: Fall of a High School Ronin, superheroes in Men of Steel, and zombies in Alice in Slasherland. Many of these works were written for Nguyen’s Obie Award–winning “geek theater” company, Vampire Cowboys. We caught up with Nguyen to chat about Vietgone, a play that combines his passions with the story of his parents. This is Part One.

Vietgone playwright Qui Nguyen. Photo courtesy Qui Nguyen.
We’ve read that you joined your high school drama club to meet cute girls, but since then you’ve written 12 plays and cofounded a theater company. What’s kept you in the theater besides the cute girls?

[Laughs] Right now I’m working in TV and film but I still go back to theater because in theater I know my mission. In TV and film I’m more of a workhorse, but in theater my artistry is specific; I know my voice and the context that I bring there. I’m creating shows for a younger demographic and creating characters that often don’t get depicted in a certain way. I had to write Vietgone because those are five really good roles that don’t exist for Asian Americans and their stories aren’t being told.

On the surface, Vietgone doesn’t resemble your other plays. Where did the idea for it come from?

It’s the play I’d always planned on writing. The first time I tried to write anything about my family was a play called Trial by Water, which was a big bag of garbage. My mom saw it and said, “It’s interesting but it doesn’t sound like you. You’re mischievous, you’re funny, and you goof around. None of that is on the stage.” It was one of the most profound criticisms I ever got. So I created Vampire Cowboys to explore who I was as a mischievous artist. When I got “old enough,” I thought I’d write my parents’ story. My parents are older now, and I have kids. At some point I thought, “I’m never going to become this mature artist. So I’m just going to write this play using all the tools in my toolbox, and see what it sounds like.”

Why did you choose to use rap as a major part of the musical landscape?

My brain doesn’t think in terms of melody. It’s an extension of being a writer and picking up words and seeing how I can play with the rhythms. I first fell in love with rap when I was freestyling on the corner with my friends. It’s part of who I am.

Vietgone begins at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater February 21 and runs through April 22. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about playwright Qui Nguyen? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

In Memoriam: Alan Stein

Friday, February 16, 2018

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

A.C.T. mourns the loss of Alan Stein, beloved Chair of A.C.T.’s Board of Trustees from 1988 to 1997 and a consummate advocate for and supporter of arts and culture across the Bay Area. A theater-loving Columbia College graduate with a distinguished career in finance, Alan first became involved at A.C.T. in the 1970s, shortly after relocating to San Francisco from New York. In the early days, he worked closely with Artistic Director William Ball to stabilize the company and orient it toward the future.

Carey Perloff and Alan Stein at A.C.T.'s Producers Circle Dinner at The Geary Theater, 2013.
Photo courtesy of Drew Altizer Photography.
In 1988, with A.C.T. facing economic challenges, Alan returned to the board, becoming chair months before the Loma Prieta earthquake. In the wake of that disaster, with The Geary in ruins, Alan pointed the way forward with the words, “The show must go on.”

Alan’s energy, persuasiveness, and financial know-how, developed during a career that included leadership roles at Goldman Sachs and Montgomery Securities, was paramount to A.C.T.’s recovery in the 1990s. He played an active role in hiring Artistic Director Carey Perloff and nurturing her creative vision, and was instrumental in the campaign to rebuild The Geary. His courage, commitment, and irreverence ushered in a new era for A.C.T. and helped stimulate the enormous growth the company has witnessed over the past two decades.

As emeritus chair, Alan served as the campaign co-chair for A.C.T.’s first endowment campaign that secured more than $30 million. Today, Alan and his wife Ruth are remembered throughout A.C.T. in the conference room at 30 Grant that bears their name, and in the Christmas Carol characters Alan and Ruth—two of the jolliest guests at the Fezziwigs’ party.

A.C.T. owes an immeasurable debt of gratitude to Alan, a generous and visionary leader who worked hand in hand with three artistic directors, ensured the company’s long-term financial stability, and played numerous roles across five decades of A.C.T.’s history. We will miss him enormously, and we celebrate his remarkable life.

Held Close and Buried Deep: Vietgone Arrives at A.C.T.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

The Strand Theater is ready to rock. Playwright Qui Nguyen’s hip-hop inspired, action-packed  comedy Vietgone has arrived at A.C.T. At the show’s first rehearsal, director Jaime Castañeda introduced the play to an enthusiastic room of actors, staff members, and donors, calling Vietgone “raw, unbridled theater.” “I'm always amazed when I go to a rock concert and there’s this certain level of excitement in the audience that theater is rarely able to capture,” says Castañeda. “I feel like Vietgone is one of those special stories that has music that feels alive and exciting.”

Director Jaime Castañeda at the first rehearsal for A.C.T.'s production of Vietgone.
Photo by Elspeth Sweatman.
Vietgone tells the story of how Nguyen’s parents met and fell in love at a refugee camp in Arkansas after fleeing their war-torn country of Vietnam. Made up of an entirely Asian American cast, Vietgone not only brings Asian representation to the stage, but also takes on some close-to-home issues. “The way Qui’s writing debunks and flips stereotypes is hella dope,” says Castañeda. “He executes it with such intelligence and cutting wit, which is a tricky thing to do.”

Composer Shammy Dee at the first rehearsal for 
A.C.T.'s production of VietgonePhoto by Elspeth Sweatman.
Through hip-hop’s versatile styles, the music of Vietgone will reflect both the 1970s setting of the play as well as its contemporary dialogue. “Hip-hop is a very complex musical art form,” says Castañeda. “When hip-hop first started, they were sampling records from the ’60s and ’70s, so a lot of the instrumentation that you’ll hear in the show calls back to ’60s and ’70s sounds. It still feels contemporary, but some of the songs will have an older vibe to them.” Composer Shammy Dee debuted two of his originally scored songs for the room, which were received with smiles and head bobs. He explained that he and Castañeda wanted the music to support the storytelling. “Some songs are more expositional and others are the characters’ internal monologues,” says Shammy Dee, “We wanted to make the music as simple as possible while still making sure it feels full of emotion.”

Vietgone is a memory play,” says Castañeda, “but it’s also not really a memory play because it’s not Qui’s memory. He’s making this shit up. The stories our parents tell us are only pieces of what they can remember from 30 years ago. And for many cultures, our parents don’t want to tell us what happened before we were born. These stories are held close and buried deep. This play is an exploration of what happens if we were to imagine our parents young, wildly in love, and attacking each other’s faces. We’re going to stage that version of the story.”

begins at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater February 21 and runs through April 22. Click here to purchase tickets.

A.C.T.'s 2018 Sky Festival Moves and Shakes 30 Grant

Friday, February 9, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

Each year, the Master of Fine Arts Program actors bring the studios of 30 Grant to life, with a week full of student-directed, student-written, student-acted performances called Sky Festival. This year’s Sky Festival was no different: everything from dramatic classics (Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) to contemporary comedies (Stephen Adly Guirgis's The Motherfucker with the Hat) to student-devised projects (third-year M.F.A. actor Kadeem Ali Harris’s Black Masculinity) were staged for A.C.T.’s staff and friends to enjoy. 
Leonard A. Thomas and the cast of Kadeem Ali Harris's Black Masculinity. A.C.T.'s 2018 Sky Festival. Photo by Jay Yamada.
Harris’s moving piece featured six black actors—Jared C. Manders, LeRoy Smith Graham, Edward Neville Ewell, Joseph Givens II, and Leonard A. Thomas—including himself, exploring the different facets of black masculinity through movement and monologue. In one of the show’s many powerful moments, the men led all of the black women out of the audience to center stage and washed their feet in tribute to their strength and beauty. Several of the women were brought to tears by this gesture. “I'm not sure how many other graduate schools across the country would give space and time for the black men to come together and create a piece,” says Thomas. “I'm very grateful not just for the experience of sharing this piece with an audience, but also for the rehearsal process with the cast itself. Black Masculinity is an experience that I will take with me through the rest of my career and my life.”

What makes Sky Festival so unique is that it presents M.F.A. actors with the opportunity to try their hand at something new or tackle a creative challenge. They can perform a work from the canon alongside a mentor (which is what third-year actor Oliver Shirley did with A.C.T.’s Head of Movement Stephen Buescher), or direct a work of their own, like second-year actor Göran Norquist did with Sweeney Todd. No matter the show, the offices below 30 Grant's 8th and 9th floors had the privilege of listening to all the sounds of live theater for an entire week.

Here are some pictures from a few of this year’s great shows.

M.F.A Program actor Oliver Shirley and A.C.T. faculty member Stephen Buescher in Waiting for Godot. A.C.T.'s 2018 Sky Festival. Photo by Jay Yamada.
M.F.A Program actors Monica Ho and Göran Norquist in Sweeney Todd. A.C.T.'s 2018 Sky Festival. Photo by Jay Yamada.
M.F.A. Program actors Jennifer Apple and Matt Monaco in The Motherfucker with the Hat. A.C.T.'s Sky Festival. 
Photo by Jay Yamada.
A.C.T.'s Master of Fine Arts Program Class of 2018 will be performing Stephen Adly Guirgis's dark comedy, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, from February 22–March 3 at The Rueff at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets.

Fueling the Resistance: The First Annual Every 28 Hours Black Arts Festival

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

This past weekend, The Strand Theater opened its doors to the Bay Area, welcoming in community members for a day of free movement workshops, panels, and performances as part of the inaugural Every 28 Hours Black Arts Festival 2018. For Stephanie Wilborn, A.C.T.’s Community Programs Coordinator and the festival’s co-producer, it was an unforgettable day “filled with joy, laughter, tears, and healing.”

The cast of Every 28 Hours (2018). Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
For the past two years, A.C.T. has participated with theaters in the surrounding area in a reading of Every 28 Hours, the 72 one-minute plays created in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. This year, the Education & Community Programs team wanted to see the reading evolve into a larger, community-wide event. “We saw this as an opportunity to turn the reading series into a festival where we could celebrate Black arts, Black activism, and Black culture,” says A.C.T. Community Producing Fellow and festival co-producer Nailah Harper-Malveaux.

Throughout the day and into the night, The Strand’s lobby was bustling with activity. Many festival attendees were wearing t-shirts reading “The Black Woman is God,” which were sold in the lobby as part of an exhibit by the same name, curated by artist Karen Seneferu. Leading up to the climactic Every 28 Hours plays were powerful spoken word performances by the Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company, drumming from Nyree Young, and a spiritual dance by Dezi Soléy. “The musical and movement performances prepared the space in a way that really got the audience in the mood to tackle some large issues in the Every 28 Hour plays,” says Harper-Malveaux.

The plays themselves—performed by members A.C.T.’s Master of Fine Arts Program, Young Conservatory, and Education & Community Programs—were moving, devastating, and shocking. Several members of the cast were moved to tears by the show’s close when names of black victims of police violence were being read. After the show, the audience split into facilitated group discussions in which thoughts and feelings about the issues and themes explored in the plays were processed. Drummer Nyree Young returned to end the night with an uplifting drum circle rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” where she encouraged the audience to join her in song. The crowd did her one better: black audience members broke out into an impromptu praise dance, embracing the joy of the moment. “It was an incredible feeling to be in a room that was celebrating us as a people and celebrating our resilience,” says Harper-Malveaux. “Art has a great ability to fuel a culture’s soul and fuel our resistance.”

To find out more about A.C.T.’s Education & Community Programs, click here. Interested in getting involved with an activist group in the Bay Area? Check out this list of local organizations compiled by SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice).

A.C.T.’s Every 28 Hours Black Arts Festival to Empower and Heal

Friday, February 2, 2018

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

Happy Black History Month! Says A.C.T. Community Programs Coordinator Stephanie Wilborn, February “is a time to honor, pay respects to, and take pride in our history that made us and continues to make us the beautiful, strong and resilient community we are today.” In celebration, Wilborn and A.C.T.’s Education & Community Programs team are kicking off the first annual Every 28 Hours Black Arts Festival showcasing local black art, culture, and activism tomorrow, February 3, from 3 to 10 pm at The Strand Theater.

Artwork for the Every 28 Hours Black Arts Festival. By Kim Rhee.
The theme of this year’s festival is A Healing Experience, which will focus on resilience and joy in the face of the struggle against police brutality and racial oppression. In keeping with this theme, the festival will feature free events that aim to be uplifting and empowering, including a movement workshop that will explore hip-hop as an act of social justice and a meditation workshop inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. Additionally, there will be performances by Bay Area spoken-word artists, musicians, singers, and dancers, as well as goods and food for sale from black-owned businesses. The Strand lobby will be adorned with art pieces in an exhibit called The Black Woman Is God: Divine Revolution, curated by Karen Seneferu.

The festival will come to a close with performances from Every 28 Hours, a series of one-minute plays inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Co-created by Dominic D’Andrea of the One-Minute Play Festival and Claudia Alick of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Every 28 Hours takes its name from a study that found that statistically, a black person is killed every 28 hours by law enforcement in the United States. These performances will be presented by members of A.C.T.’s Master of Fine Arts Program, Young Conservatory, and Education & Community Programs, under the direction of Bay Area theater artist and activist Elizabeth Carter.

“I feel truly honored to be performing at this all-day, fortifying healing experience,” says performer Cheri Lynn, “Let’s heal some of the hurt together.”

All events at the Every 28 Hours Black Arts Festival are free and open to the public. Due to limited space, RSVPs for the workshops and panel discussion are required; RSVPs for the evening performances are strongly encouraged. To view the schedule and reserve a spot, click here.
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