At an institute run by Anna Deavere Smith in Cambridge, MA, this past summer, theater critic and columnist Margo Jefferson developed a short performance piece with Francesca Harper—former principal dancer with the Frankfurt Ballet, a cast-member of Fosse, and Jefferson's niece. The piece, titled 50 Minutes With Harriet and Phillis, is finishing up a work-in-progress mounting of six performances, Feb. 15-24, at Off Broadway's Cherry Lane Alternative space, as part of The Cherry Lane Theatre Project series.
A "theatrical collage of words, dance and music," 50 Minutes will slice n' dice words and themes from such disparate sources as 18th century black poet Phillis Wheatley, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and 1940s Hollywood movies. Characters include Harriet and Phillis, TV personalities who "chat about the burdens of slavery and stardom," and Harry and Phil, game-show hosts who "turn race, class and gender into a multi-media carnival."
Paul D. Miller, who, according to spokespersons for the Cherry Lane, is best known under the name "Dj Spooky that Subliminal Kid," will provide original music for the piece.
Jefferson, who has been contributing critiques and theatre-opinion pieces to the New York Times for several years, was chosen as the paper’s Sunday theatre columnist to replace Vincent Canby, who died at age 76 on Oct. 15, 2000. Jefferson told Playbill On-Line (Oct. 18) she would write one Sunday column per month, while continuing as critic at large and contributing her bi-weekly piece to the second page of the Times' culture section. Jefferson, an African-American woman, first started writing for the paper the same year Canby became its Sunday critic, 1993. At the time, the theatre section had a seemingly homogenous, white male “voice.” (Since then, Anita Gates was added as one of the third-string critics, alongside Lawrence Van Gelder, D.J.R. Bruckner and David DeWitt). Her theatre criticism and book reviews earned Jefferson a 1995 Pulitzer.
Also, she's a Brandeis (B.A.) and Columbia University (M.S.) alumnus and has taught journalism at New York University. Not shy about tackling potentially controversial subject matter, Jefferson’s essays have weighed in on such topics as ebonics, “race ennui” and black feminism. She received an Alumni Achievement Award from Brandeis in 1995. As for The Cherry Lane Theatre Project, run by the umbrella Cherry Lane Alternative producing organization out of the Cherry Lane Theatre, other current activities include developing Eduardo Machado's new play, Once Removed, which had a reading featuring Guys and Dolls' Josie de Guzman, Feb. 5.
For tickets ($10) and information on 50 Minutes with Harriet & Phillis at the Cherry Lane Alternative: 38 Commerce St., call (646) 336.7301. Opening night, Feb. 15, was sold out.
— By David Lefkowitz