Review: The Second City’s ‘Black Side of the Moon’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

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The Second City’s Black Side of the Moon— the Chicago-based comedy troupe’s first foray into post-Obama politics—launched the holiday season this week with an African-American cast and a show that is more like theatre than cabaret.

Joining forces with Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company—its DC collaborator since 2009—Black Side of the Moon is a combination of political satire and what Director Billy Bungeroth calls a way of looking at past and future foibles through the prism of  laughter.

And laughter is abundant in this hot-off-the press revue, where six members of the company, all new to the Woolly stage, take turns lampooning everything from protest rallies to Trump, and from inner city education, gentrification, horror movies and Trump and gay mannerisms and history and racism and fast food and oh, did I mention Trump?

(from left): Dewayne Perkins, Sonia Denis, Felonious Munk, Dave Helem, Angela Alise, and Torian Miller. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

(from left): Dewayne Perkins, Sonia Denis, Felonious Munk, Dave Helem, Angela Alise, and Torian Miller. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

One of the funniest scenes in the show is a spoof on progressive versus conservative politics, involving the entire ensemble, in which the Anti-Gluten party, champion of freedom from additives, faces off against the regressive ‘We want white bread’ forces.

Another sketch depicts role reversal at an 1806 slave auction, in which a hapless white volunteer is poked and prodded, then rejected as too weak for field work.

At the performance I attended, the audience volunteer—a recent graduate from AU—managed to maintain a cheerful demeanor through most of the sketch.

Each of the performers brings a personal perspective to his or her role. Sonia Denis mounts a furious counter-attack against  a ‘Black Lives Matter’ group with a feminist take on prejudice, highlighting the fact that in this community, the slogan should be ‘Female Lives Matter.’

Felonious Munk offers an eloquent and funny monologue. In it, this veteran of television news brings coherence to the show, tying all the strands together to explain why, for example, slavery, and fast food can be connected. He also does a fabulous Obama monologue.

Some of the most powerful sketches are those in which laughter is mixed with shock or discomfort. Dewayne Perkins is perfect as the hapless job applicant being interviewed for a position for which he is eminently qualified. But when the recruiter makes a condescending remark about affirmative action, there is no right answer.

Similarly, Dave Helem is both funny and horrifying when he portrays an incompetent teacher in the inner-city schools. In his skit, he boasts of ways to cheat the system. This is satire at its most ruthless.

Torian Miller, on the other hand, is funny and sweet as the openly gay man who is sometimes ‘whiter than white’ and loves good design.

Angela Alise, is one of the strongest actors in this production. The fact that she can make a Popeye menu sound both ominous and hilarious is just one example of her talent.

The set is a perfectly realized corner in an inner-city neighborhood, in this case DC’s Southeast. The façade of a rowhouse–complete with a stoop and lighted windows and door—is flanked by a wall with fading posters advertising long-gone concerts. Overhead, beaming down like the sunny side of the moon, is a poster reading “Michelle 2020.”

Three-time Helen Hayes Award winner Colin K. Bills, a longtime Woolly Company member, is responsible for both the set and the lighting. The latter is extraordinary.

Ranging from the dimmest of grays and blues when the action is out front—or in the audience—to the most astonishing reds and blues and yellows when performers pop in and out of the windows, the lighting is like a character in the show.

The sound, however, was problematic at my performance.  It was fine when there was dancing—regardless of whether it was wild and funky, or quiet and cheek-to-cheek—or when, combined with the lighting, it created the illusion of a violent storm. But I had difficulty when there was background sound when the characters were engaged in quiet talk about high school days or lost friends. In addition, some of the actors use hand-held mics—as in stand-up—while others didn’t. Some, like Angela Alise, who is a highly trained veteran of the musical stage, could project beautifully, while others could not.

Costume Designer Robert Croghan has put together a colorful melange, ranging from the madcap outfits sported by the gay characters to the bare-bones simplicity of jeans and tank top worn by Denis. Small touches, such as bonnets and top hats, transport the characters to 1806.

As directed by Billy Bungeroth and Assistant Director Lili-Anne Brown, and stage-managed by William Collins, Black Side of the Moon moves along briskly. And that, considering that much of the material must have been put together in the few days since the election, is amazing.

Black Side of the Moon opens with a parody of Martin Luther King Jr’s famous, and famously inspiring, “I Have A Dream.” In this Second City version, the speech, delivered in the most sonorous tones, begins, “I have a nightmare.” Any show that can draw laughter from the stuff of nightmares—and hoots of affirmation from an audience that, on the night I attended, was equally black and white—deserves to be seen.

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.

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The Second City’s Black Side of the Moon plays through January 1, 2017 at  Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (301) 928-2738, or purchase them online.

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