RED BANK: FORTUNE SETS ‘BASIE 2020’ SKED

william count basie postersImages of William ‘Count’ Basie on display at the T. Thomas Fortune Cultural Center last week. (Photos by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

By JOHN T. WARD

The T. Thomas Fortune Cultural Center, built to honor a pioneering African-American journalist with Red Bank ties, plans to spotlight the borough-born musical giant William ‘Count’ Basie through 2020.

The occasion is the 85th anniversary of the formation of the Count Basie Orchestra, which is still touring 36 years after its founder’s death.

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RED BANK: RAISIN’ A FAMILY @ TWO RIVER

Crystal A. Dickinson and Brandon J. Dirden share the stage in the season opening production of ‘A Raisin in the Sun.’ (Photo by Lisa Campbell)

While it doesn’t claim anything resembling a formal “stock company” of actors and other creative types, Red Bank’s professional Two River Theater Company has been more than happy to foster some mutually beneficial relationships with a number of recurring players — perhaps none more so than Brandon J. Dirden, the Tony-nominated, Obie-winning stage-screen talent who’s made himself quite comfortable on Bridge Avenue, even as his star ascended on television (The Americans) and Broadway (All the Way, in which he appeared as no less iconic a presence than Martin Luther King Jr.).

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RED BANK: A CURTAIN-RAISIN’ FREE BBQ

Red Bank’s own blues specialist Gary Wright takes it to the Two River Theater on Thursday for a “block party” previewing the upcoming production of ‘A Raisin in the Sun.’ (Photo by Terri Walliczek.)

When the folks at Two River Theater Company launch a new slate of mainstage shows next month, they’ll be bringing in the 2017-2018 season with a fresh look at a genuine American classic — A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 drama of a black Chicago family’s struggle to achieve their dreams.

Before the “raisin” of the curtain, however, the Red Bank institution will be raisin’ the roof this Thursday evening with a community “block party,” a public-welcome affair that boasts live music, dancing, food and a a meet-and-greet opportunity with cast members from the show that opens officially on September 15.

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RED BANK: MA RAINEY’S COMING TO TOWN

Arnetia_Walker_and_Doug_Doyle_WBGO_88.3_InterviewArnetia Walker is interviewed by WBGO radio’s Doug Doyle in a recent event at Two River Theater. The stage and screen actress steps/sings into the title role of MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, the season-opening show that goes up in previews this weekend. (Photos by Carmen Balentine)

Arnetia_Walker_HeadshotIt’s a more-or-less annual highlight of the new season at Two River Theater: a further exploration into the work of the late August Wilson, the celebrated African American playwright whose “Century Cycle” of dramas — ten somewhat interconnected plays, each one set in a different decade and illuminating another aspect of the black experience in America — has apparently become an unstated but ongoing project at the Bridge Avenue performing arts space.

Just as they did with last September’s production of “Seven Guitars,” the folks at Two River are kicking off the new 2016-2017 slate of shows with a bluesy keynote from the house of Wilson: the playwright’s 1984 Broadway breakthrough “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Going up in previews beginning this Saturday night, September 10, and set inside a recording studio in 1927 Chicago, the music-infused ensemble drama is a bit unusual, in that it’s only one of the Cycle that’s not based in Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh. And, as the title suggests, it’s the only one of the ten that boasts a central character drawn from real life.

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RED BANK: MA RAINEY’S BLOCK PARTY @TRTC

Brandon J DirdenReturning star Brandon J. Dirden (above) is among the cast members expected to attend — while J.W. Lawson and Dean Shot (below) bring the live blues tunes — as Two River Theater keynotes the season opening-production of ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ with a Friday evening “block party.”

JW Lawson Dean ShotWhile we’re still a few Saturdays away from the start of the new 2016-2017 schedule at Two River Theater, the Red Bank performing arts space is keeping it outside for the moment — with a special event that harnesses the magic-hour mojo of the late-summertime season and sounds an early keynote for a blues-infused season opener.

That inaugural production is “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the August Wilson ensemble piece that opens September 16 as the latest in Two River’s ongoing exploration of the late African American playwright’s “century cycle” of dramas. The special event is a Taste of the Blues Block Party that rocks the theater’s open-air patio with a Friday evening fricassee of live music, dancing, locally sourced cuisine, and “a chance to meet and mingle with the cast.”

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RED BANK: FAMILIAR FACES RETURN TO TRTC

johndiasTwo River Theater Company artistic director John Dias, above, directs a musical that he co-wrote, and Madeleine George, below, the theater’s first Playwright in Residence, will see her comedy — which is set in Red Bank mounted next season.

madeleine georgeThere are encore appearances by favorite actors. Re-visits to the words and works of Shakespeare and August Wilson. No less than three shows making their world premieres — including one set within “a larger-than-life version of Red Bank.”

When Two River Theater Company unveiled its 2016-2017 schedule of productions Monday night, it did so in a fashion that’s become a real rite of spring on Bridge Avenue: with the company’s celebrated artistic director John Dias joined on stage by creative people representing the comedies, dramas, musicals and multi-media experiences that will illuminate Two River’s stages beginning in September.

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RED BANK: DIRDEN ROLLS A LUCKY ‘SEVEN’

BrandonJDirdenA familiar face on the Two River Theater stage, Brandon J. Dirden returns as a first-time director, with a production of August Wilson’s SEVEN GUITARS that opens the new Two River season this weekend. 

Last time the Drama Desk at redbankgreen looked in on Brandon J. Dirden, the actor was preparing for his starring turn in the Two River Theater world premiere of writer-director Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine; a project that capped a busy year on the Broadway stage (where he won acclaim as Martin Luther King Jr. in the Tony winning All The Way), the TV screen (a recurring role as Agent Aderholt in the FX series The Americans), and — with wife and frequent co-star Crystal A. Dickinson — the ongoing adventure of new parenthood.

When the native Texan helps Two River Theater Company inaugurate its new season this Saturday, September 12, it will be without Santiago-Hudson, the collaborator who previously directed him in the August Wilson plays Jitney (in Red Bank) and a 2012 production of The Piano Lesson that earned the actor an Obie award. It will, however, be in the spiritual company of the late great African American playwright, whose ten-play “Century Cycle” receives continued exploration by TRTC, with a limited engagement of Seven Guitars that runs through October 4 — and that represents Brandon J. Dirden’s first foray as director.

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RED BANK: FILM, FOOD, FORTUNE AND FIRSTIES

AugustWilsonThe documentary feature AUGUST WILSON: THE GROUND ON WHICH I STAND receives a free public-welcome screening on August 19 at Two River Theater. The 7:30 pm event is just part of a slate of special happenings keyed to the Two River production of Wilson’s SEVEN GUITARS, opening September 12 as the first show in the new season.

Press release from The T. Thomas Fortune Project

A free documentary film screening, a Birthday Bash fundraiser for a celebrated figure in Red Bank history, a lecture on the legacy of a great American playwright. All this, plus a Soulful Cook-Off and a Bid Whist Tournament — and all of it keyed to the opening of Seven Guitars, the first production of the new 2015-2016 season at Two River Theater.

The latest in Two River Theater Company’s series of dramas written by August Wilson, Seven Guitars goes up in previews on September 12; opening on September 18 and running a limited engagement through October 4 under the direction of frequent TRTC lead actor Brandon J. Dirden. As an appetizer for that main course, the theater invites one and all to a free screening of August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand, on the evening of Wednesday, August 19. Scheduled for 7:30 pm inside the main Rechnitz auditorium at Two River, the documentary feature (originally produced as part of the PBS series American Masters)  offers an inside look at the Tony- and Pulitzer winning dramatist who examined African American life in the 20th century through his home turf of Pittsburgh’s Hill District. While admission is free of charge, seating must be reserved by calling the box office at (732)345-1400.

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RED BANK: TWO RIVER INTROS NEW SEASON

DirdenStoneRechnitzReturning Broadway veterans Brandon J. Dirden and Jessica Stone — plus rookie playwright Robert Rechnitz, pictured with wife and fellow Two River Theater Company founder Joan — are among the creative forces powering a just-announced 2015-2016 season of shows on Two River stages.

It’s a highly anticipated rite of spring in Red Bank — one that John Dias jokingly referred to as “this totally kooky annual event” — but when the artistic director of Two River Theater Company played host for the 2015-2016 Season Announcement on Monday night, he was entirely serious in first thanking the “loyal, passionate” audience members who “want to be the first to hear what we’re doing each year.”

Kicking off in mid-September, and comprising eight productions on two stages of TRTC’s branded Bridge Avenue arts center, it’s a schedule that boasts fresh takes on familiar classics, and first looks at a couple of world premiere works. There’s some engagingly quirky casting; the return of several fondly regarded members of the extended Two River family — and a debut original work by a forever-young upstart who holds a special resonance with the Red Bank audience.

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RED BANK: ‘BLUES’ ONE MORE TIME, AT TRTC

BLUES_Press_4Charles Weldon (left) counsels Brandon J. Dirden in YOUR BLUES AIN’T SWEET LIKE MINE, entering the final weekend of its world premiere run at Two River Theater. (Photos by Michal Daniel)

By TOM CHESEK

“I’m through with the interracial dating thing,” says the black homeless advocate Zeke (Brandon J. Dirden) to the white well-to-do writer Judith (Merritt Janson), in Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine. “OJ stupid-ass messed it up for the rest of us.”

Confrontational by nature (but not so consumed with anger that he can’t win an audience over with some pithy observations and well-placed laugh lines); at odds with American social attitudes (but not so beaten down by the system that he can’t sport a peacock-proud wardrobe), Zeke is an intriguingly inscrutable original — a fact not lost on Judith, whose interest in the educated former professional extends beyond a simple donation of clothing to the local shelter.

Their uneasy transaction sounds the keynote for Blues, the play written and directed by Tony-winning actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson that wraps up its world premiere run this week at Red Bank’s Two River Theater.

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RED BANK: ‘BLUES’ WITH SOMETHING EXTRA

McGreeveyMayorEdRubenFormer New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, former Asbury Park Mayor Ed Johnson and actor-director-playwright Ruben Santiago-Hudson take part in an April 26 panel discussion on Creating Social Change, an event keyed to Two River Theater’s world premiere of Santiago-Hudson’s YOUR BLUES AIN’T SWEET LIKE MINE.

From materials furnished by Two River Theater Company

With its world premiere engagement at Two River Theater, Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine marks the Red Bank return of Tony winning actor, director and August Wilson authority Ruben Santiago-Hudson — this time at the helm of his own original script; one that “brings an unlikely group together, spawning a passionate and explosive debate on America’s relationship to race.”

The second of three shows to make their world premiere at Two River this spring, the production also comes loaded with “extras” that range from downloadable playlists of vintage blues and jazz music mentioned in the script — to a series of on-site offerings that begin on Thursday, April 23 with a special exhibit of items from the Gene Alexander Peters Collection of Rare and Historic African American Artifacts.

On display in the theater lobby between 6 and 8 pm, the exhibit chronicles five critical periods for African Americans within the history of America: slavery; segregation and “Jim Crow;” the Civil Rights Era; the Black Power/Black Student Movement; and the Black Panther Party. Peters, a cultural history consultant and noted collector of rare African American artifacts, will speak about the collection from 7:15 to 7:45 pm, and will be available to answer questions. Take it here for additional information on the exhibit.

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RED BANK: ‘BLUES’ WITH SOMETHING EXTRA

McGreeveyMayorEdRubenFormer New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, former Asbury Park Mayor Ed Johnson, and actor-director-playwright Ruben Santiago-Hudson take part in an April 26 panel discussion on Creating Social Change, an event keyed to Two River Theater’s world premiere of Santiago-Hudson’s YOUR BLUES AIN’T SWEET LIKE MINE.

From materials furnished by Two River Theater Company

Opening its world premiere engagement tonight, April 17 at Two River Theater, Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine marks the Red Bank return of Tony winning actor, director and August Wilson authority Ruben Santiago-Hudson — this time at the helm of his own original script; one that “brings an unlikely group together, spawning a passionate and explosive debate on America’s relationship to race.”

The second of three shows to make their world premiere at Two River this spring, the production also comes loaded with “extras” that range from downloadable playlists of vintage blues and jazz music mentioned in the script — to a series of on-site offerings that begin on Thursday, April 23 with a special exhibit of items from the Gene Alexander Peters Collection of Rare and Historic African American Artifacts.

On display in the theater lobby between 6 and 8 pm, the exhibit chronicles five critical periods for African Americans within the history of America: slavery; segregation and “Jim Crow;” the Civil Rights Era; the Black Power/Black Student Movement; and the Black Panther Party. Peters, a cultural history consultant and noted collector of rare African American artifacts, will speak about the collection from 7:15 to 7:45 pm, and will be available to answer questions. Take it here for additional information on the exhibit — and take it ’round the corner for more.

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‘BLUES’ ON RED BANK’S UPPER WEST SIDE

BrandonJDirdenActor Brandon J. Dirden returns to Red Bank as star of YOUR BLUES AIN’T SWEET LIKE MINE, the drama by Tony winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson that begins its world premiere engagement this weekend.

It’s been quite a year-and-change for Brandon J. Dirden, an Obie award winner whose previous projects for Red Bank’s Two River Theater Company include August Wilson’s Jitney, and Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, in which he starred alongside his brother Jason. The 35-year-old actor made a big impression on Broadway – as Dr. Martin Luther King, no less – in the Tony-winning smash All The Way. A role on the FX series The Americans found him becoming a regular presence as FBI Agent Aderholt – and somewhere along that timeline, he and his wife, actress Crystal Anne Dickinson, became the parents of a baby boy.

When Dirden returns to Red Bank this weekend, he’ll be reuniting with his Jitney director — Tony winning actor (and August Wilson authority) Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who also steered Dirden to that Obie in a 2012 production of Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. The vehicle for their collaboration this time is Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine – an original script by Santiago-Hudson that stands as the second of three shows making their world premiere on Bridge Avenue this spring.

Merritt Janson co-stars as Judith, a well-to-do Manhattanite whose encounter with homeless-shelter staffer Zeke (Dirden) sparks an Upper West Side dinner party invitation that “brings an unlikely group together, spawning a passionate and explosive debate on America’s relationship to race.” Andrew Hovelson, Roslyn Ruff and Charles Weldon complete the cast, and the Drama Desk at redbankgreen caught up with Dirden as Your Blues prepped for its first preview this Saturday, April 11. Here’s a condensed version of the interview.

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