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'Almost There: Songs of the Season' Offers Music, Merriment and Traditions, Old and New

Music, family and tradition come together at The Black Box Theatre as Live Garra Theatre celebrates the holiday season.The most wonderful time of the year? For Wanda Whiteside, it was always February.

Whiteside, the artistic director of Live Garra Theatre in Silver Spring, grew up in a less-than-diverse community on Long Island, and February meant she would get packages from her grand-aunt and grandmother in Columbia, South Carolina. “They would send me these head shots of George Washington Carver and Harriet Tubman and Harriet Beecher Stowe, with a little blurb about who these people were,” she recalled. “And I would go to the principal and say, ‘OK, it’s Black History Week — we have to put these in the front trophy case.’ It was something I would do every year.”

Whiteside, who trained at the Boston Conservatory of Music, HB Actor’s Studio and Usdan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts in New York, is now a longtime Maryland resident. She stayed in the D.C. area after earning a bachelor of fine arts degree in theatre arts and a master of science in business management from Howard University — she will complete a Doctor of Education in organizational leadership soon — and has never stopped telling the stories of her people. In the run-up to Live Garra Theatre’s holiday production of “Almost There: Songs of the Season,” she is happy to explain why.

“We, as a people, have a story to tell,” she said. “It can’t be told from the point of view of others, which sometimes happens — it happens with all cultures, I think. “I want the company to speak to the story of the African American heritage and, with culturally-specific theater, bring all cultures together.” Cultures, yes, and people, too, especially at the end of December when Christmas cheer is in the air, the principles of Kwanzaa — unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, collective economics, purpose, creativity and faith — are at the fore and the possibilities of a brand-new year lay ahead. “Almost There: Songs of the Season” celebrates it all, with two original plays and a jazz band ready to perform at Silver Spring’s Black Box Theatre.

“These two pieces, two short one-acts, are uplifting,” Whiteside said. “I wanted to do something fun, to incorporate music and to close the year out on an upbeat, positive note.”  In “Grandma’s Christmas,” Kim (Karen Lawrence) must make some new traditions for her family.
To do that, she is staging Thomas Mason, Jr.’s “No One Hears the Night — A Modern Jazz Tale,” and once again, has called upon playwright Joy Hunter Carroll, a native Washingtonian and fellow Howard University alumna whose play “Grandma’s Christmas” explores family dynamics at the holiday season.

The playwright has a bachelor of arts in communications from Howard University’s School of Radio, TV and Film. Technical writing, she said, “pays the bills, but there’s something about playwriting. I like the live audience, the immediate feedback.” She also likes the idea of creating a family-friendly event and showcasing contemporary issues that families in the audience can relate to. “When the economy is like this, a lot of kids, not teenagers — adult children — are moving back home,” Carroll pointed out. “Seeing how families deal with that, talking to some mothers, I thought it was an interesting idea.”

It is not the usual holiday tale, but it is one that tells a story of a family celebrating Christmas in its own evolving way. “It’s not a traditional Christmas play, and that’s one theme it kind of explores: tradition,” Carroll said. “We do the same thing every year; we can’t change anything just because we’ve done it for so long. “But there’s always room for new traditions; there’s always room for new experiences, especially if they help us to grow, to be better, to create wonderful memories for people that we love and for ourselves.”

Live Garra Artistic Director Wanda Whiteside plays Grandma in “Grandma’s Christmas.” Whiteside thinks that memories will be made at this year’s Live Garra holiday performance. This year, in addition to directing, Whiteside will be polishing her performing chops in the role of Grandma in “Grandma’s Christmas.” “I’m an actor,” she explained. “I do sometimes have to step in and perform if I need to.” She noted that while “Grandma’s Christmas” offers Hawaiian flavor and fun, “No One Hears the Night,” about a jazz legend searching for his legacy, brings the music, especially with the group Musik Konnekt in the house, and a few surprises sprinkled through each show.

“Grandma’s Christmas,” Whiteside said, “is kind of a coming of age story: the mom — the grandma — is coming of age and starting to feel like it’s time for her to make her life and do things for herself. And her daughter has to face reality: she’s a grown woman and she has to stop depending on her mother for everything and start doing things herself for her kids.”  The characters are African American, yes, but “the themes are universal,” Whiteside said. “The soul has no color. The soul is the soul. We’re all the same.” Especially mothers and daughters. Whiteside’s mother, the granddaughter of a slave, passed away 10 years ago on Christmas Eve. Whiteside and her husband Arthur Seaman had owned and operated the Bonifant Theatre Space in Silver Spring before deciding to open a new company — and Whiteside whispered a prayer to her mom when she was considering whether or not to move forward. “She’s actually the reason Live Garra came to be,” said the director. “We were moving out of our Bonifant Theatre space. It was her birthday and I just kind of said, ‘Oh, mom, does this mean we should just give up?’”

The answer came in the form of an inspirational quote from a book that Whiteside reads daily. On Sept. 25, her mom’s birthday, the book said, “’The Brazilians have a phrase for people who never give up,’” she recalled. “’It’s called Garra: to hold on, to persevere and to go the distance.’” She saw it as a sign: to “live garra” meant to never give up on a dream. “‘Live’ speaks to the voice in the community that sometimes is not heard,” Whiteside added. “The word ‘garra’ means persevere. It’s Portuguese and it means, literally, to hold on and never give up. That’s the soul and the spirit of the African American heritage.” The heritage of her mother, her minister grandmother and great-aunt, her great grandmother who was a slave. Live Garra is the way Whiteside tells their story and the stories of those who came before. “There were days when my ancestors were hiding in the water so that the dogs couldn’t smell their scent,” she said. “Which is where that Negro spiritual song came from: ‘Wading in the water, wading in the water, children …’” She sang it softly, the voice of her enslaved ancestors telling the story of how they would wade in the water to stay alive. “Then they could go on,” she said. “Go north to freedom, following the Big Dipper — the Drinking Gourd.” She paused, as if the weight of history was upon her. “It’s always been inside me,” she said. “Like a fire that burns, saying, ‘You have to continue to tell this story.’ “That’s why I do it.”

Silver Spring Project Gives Immigrant Experience an Artistic Platform
Storytellers, from left, are Fatima Toor, Taiba Zahir, Judy Leak, Pimmie Juntranggur, Yildiz Yilmaz, Mimi Machado Luces and Barrington Salmon. Toor holds the Native American Talking Stick; an instrument of aboriginal democracy used by many Northwest coast tribes. It is passed around a group as a symbol of their authority and right to speak in public.Wanda Whiteside believes immigration is what continues to make America great. Thus, the artistic director of Silver Spring’s Live Garra Theatre, is giving “new” Americans a platform for speaking their truths about their adopted homeland. The live show, “America’s Talking: A People’s Mosaic,” which will be filmed by the Silver Spring-based Gandhi Brigade Youth Media group, seeks to explore American identity as seen through not only recent comers to this country, but also via the musical and oral traditions whose ancestry now forms part of the American fabric.

Wanda Whiteside, artistic director of Live Garra Theatre - “It occurred to me that there were people who were asking what it means to be an American in this country. Is there a moment in their lives that made them feel that they connected?” Whiteside said of the project, which is being funded in part through a grant from Maryland Humanities. “I wanted to bring the local immigrant community together to tell their story. That’s what became ‘America’s Talking,’ where they engage in poetry and dramatic story telling so we can learn more about each other in this big, beautiful world we live in.” What defines a person who resides between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans has developed and changed over the centuries, Whiteside said, with the original Native Americans having no concept of land ownership. “They kind of laughed when [settlers] came and wanted to buy Manhattan for $24,” Whiteside said of early contact with Europeans. “How do you ‘buy’ land? It doesn’t belong to anyone. We’re here to work with [the earth] and cohabitate with it. “If anything, it belongs to our children,” she said, echoing an Indian belief. America’s Talking” will feature voices not only voices from the Native American community, but also of African-Americans and those who have come to the U.S. from Pakistan, Venezuela, the Middle East, Asia and the Americas. Cuban-American Reemberto Rodriguez, director of the Silver Spring Regional Center, also will be on hand to speak about his native island located just 90 miles from Florida. “He is sort of the unofficial mayor of Silver Spring,” Whiteside said of Rodriguez, whose story Gandhi Brigade members filmed as part of “America’s Talking.”

Whiteside said the genesis of “America’s Talking” came about when she was coaching a Caribbean-American actress who, although she had resided in the United States for several years, felt trapped between two cultures. “She felt she wasn’t quite ready to commit to being an American, always saying ‘I’m going back home,’” Whiteside recalled. The events of 9/11 changed the Caribbean-American’s mind. “That’s when she knew that she was an American,” Whiteside said. “And it really hit me: there must be so many other immigrants in our community [who] realize that they really are part of this country even though they speak a different language or dress differently.”

Storyteller Pimmie Juntranggur, who came to the U.S. from Thailand, once felt like an outsider. Other voices featured in “America’s Talking” include a Middle Eastern woman who, in the wake of 9/11, was harassed at her high school because of her heritage and wardrobe; a Venezuelan woman of Trinidadian heritage whose skin tones caused an “identity crisis” living in South America, and a Thai immigrant whose entry to the U.S. was only somewhat eased by interacting with Hawaii’s Asian-American community before continuing to the mainland.

“She couldn’t leave the country, and all of her family is in Thailand,” Whiteside said of the Thai émigré, who had to sit tight while awaiting her green card to be processed. “She couldn’t really participate in any of the American activities because she just felt [like] so much of an outsider.”

Whiteside said there always has been a nativist element in the U.S. when it comes to the newest wave of immigrants and that the current border backlash is perhaps little different than previous instances throughout our history. “It’s unfortunate because I believe it really is just a matter of fear of the unknown and what you don’t understand. That’s why that defense is there,” she observed. “So that’s part of the [exercise], why we all are sort of exposing ourselves and saying, ‘I don’t fear you; I’m not afraid to show you who I am. Please don’t fear me.’”

Whiteside, who plans to work on a project about jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden next, said that one benefit of her project might be to show people that Americans do not come in one color or creed. “I’m hoping people will realize that we are truly a human species. And you have to walk in the shoes of someone who may look different from you to understand that they are just like you,” she said. “See me as I see me. See me as I am!”

At the same time, she sees the U.S. as less of a melting pot and more a “stew,” wherein the ingredients of the population mix together yet remain themselves. “A stew has every flavor [making] it stronger. And that’s what is really the point of ‘America’s Talking.’ We are a mosaic,” Whiteside said. “We are a group of human beings who are part of this wonderful, wonderful human experiment.

“Hopefully, this little piece is like a pebble in the water, and the ripple will touch hearts and souls and minds, and maybe will touch one person and change them in some way,” she said. “I know that might sound a little sappy, but I truly believe it.”

Live Garra Theatre will present “America’s Talking: A People’s Mosaic” at 8 p.m. June 26 through 30, and at 3 p.m. June 30 and July 1 at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. For tickets, $20 (plus service fee), visit For information, call 855-575-4834. is a product of the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County.

The Frankie Lymon Story’ Brings Doo-Wop Back to D.C. Theater
by: Micha Green Special to the AFRO November 9, 2017

A local nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering cross-cultural understanding, increasing awareness and preserving the legacy of Black heritage in the Black Theatre, recently put on a production of Fool in Love: The Frankie Lymon Story in Silver Spring, Md.

While it still may not be apparent why fools fall in love, Live Garra Theatre’s production, currently playing at Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, chronicles the rise and fall of the teen, doo-wop and rhythm and blues sensation.

Cast members Lori Williams, Rayshun Lamarr (Frankie Lymon) and Roz White perform during the “Fool in Love: The Frankie Lymon Story” stage play in Silver Spring, Md. Directed by D.C. director Thomas W. Jones II, the fast-moving, finger-snapping, and foot-tapping show transports audiences to the early 1950s when Lymon was just a little boy, singing with his family, working as a grocery boy, and pimping on the streets, to the very end of his life, when he died of an overdose at 25.

Despite the tragic ending of Lymon’s life, the powerhouse cast, featuring the high-energy and impressively high-pitched singing of Rayshun Lamarr (Lymon), and the sweet, soulful, and sometimes, sensual sounds of Roz White and Lori Williams help audiences to understand what made the young artist great and memorable almost 50 years after his death in 1968.

“It’s a classic retelling of a story that should be heard historically and you have someone who is a pioneer in this music.  We know about the Little Stevies of the world… but the Frankie Lymons of the world become obsolete.  You don’t hear so much about them or their lifestyles so we want to make sure their story is told accurately and authentically,” said ensemble member, and professional singer and music teacher, Lori Williams.

“He was a great artist despite the downfalls. He was a wonderful artist.  He put out great music… and I just think people need to know his story other than the movie that’s out,” Lamarr told the AFRO, referencing the 1998, Warner Bros. Pictures film, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” starring Larenz Tate as the teenage superstar.

“I think you get a little more understanding through the show, than you do just looking at the movie.  And I think it’s just important for people to come see it in real life.  To see the action of it- the story, and what happened when, how it went down, and to actually be there in the presence.  I know it’s not reality, but just to be there live is a great thing to do,” he said.

The story of Lymon’s life was told with the fun, feelings associated with doo-wop. With song, dance, comedic relief, and a great deal of audience interaction, the show keeps viewers engaged, on the edge of their seats and even singing and snapping along to the doo-wop sounds.

The “Fool in Love” production is scheduled to run until Nov. 19 at the Live Garra Theatre in residence at Silver Spring Black Box Theatre.

DC Metro Theater Arts

Review: ‘A Matter of Perspective’ at Live Garra Theatre
By Jacqueline Brown on October 9, 2016

Is he or is he not guilty? That is the question to be answered in Live Garra Theatre’s production of A Matter of Perspective, by C.G. Gardiner.

Eight jurors from diverse backgrounds (five African-Americans, one of island descent, and three Caucasians (one Jewish woman), come together to do their civic duty to decide the guilt or innocence of a young black man accused of assaulting a white police officer, resisting arrest, and attempting to drive away from the scene. It doesn’t help that the defendant was found with a female companion in an uncompromising position.

Although you never see the actual defendant and female companion, the eight jurors take the audience on a journey that is believable of an everyday jury room. The set design is simple, two long tables with chairs, coffee, water and and one window.

As the case is discussed, it is quite evident that the jurors bring their experiences, and passion to the table. And racial tensions will be at an all time high in the jury room. Juror No. 5, played by Eli El, believes the defendant is already persecuted, believing that being “black in America,” is being “guilty” in America. Since the “sweat, blood and tears.” of his ancestors formed this country, Juror No.5, “wants his reparations.” His account of being a young boy seeing his father harassed by white police officers as they sat in a restaurant continues to haunt him, and he has no problem stating his opinion of the innocence of the defendant strongly. El’s performance as Juror No.5 is wonderful. His angry-at-the-world stance is convincing.

One may instinctively think that a white person is going to automatically believe a black person is guilty. The stereotypical mantra that is put on young black men: baggy, sagging pants, dreadlocks is immediate guilt of the crime. However, Juror No.6, played by Suzanne Edgar, wants to only go on the facts of the case. What were the officers’ testament of the crime versus the defendant? Physical appearance plays no part in her decision-making. But, maybe past criminal behavior. She is rebutted in every way possible by Juror No. 5 (El) harshly, and Juror No.7 (Martrece Caudle), but she doesn’t sway. She stands firm in “the facts.” Edgar’s portrayal of Juror No. 6 is very convincing. She would be terrific on a debate team. What her character reveals in the play, leaves the other jurors in astonishment. Caudle’s re-enactment of the incident is very visual and powerful.

As with some juries, there may be one or two jurors who can make the process a little unbearable. Such is the case with Juror No. 4 (Todd Leatherbury). Leatherbury’s performance as an Irish, arrogant, christian, possibly confused about his sexuality is well brought out. Is he a racist? Not sure. He is that one juror you wonder how and why he was picked in the first place. His statements about African-Americans, are ones heard all the time when in any discussion about race in America. “Slavery has ended, get over it! Study and work hard! Stop blaming others for your troubles.”

He definitely gets under the skin of Juror No. 3, played by IO Browne. She makes no secret of her disdain for Juror No. 4, and the fact that he may indeed be gay. They encounter verbal altercation throughout the play. I Her statement, “Being gay is one thing, but being racist and gay is too much for this Baptist girl,” added light humor to a tense environment. Her story of how police interact with black people in her neighborhood on a daily basis is all too familiar. It is sad, yet moving at the same time.

The discussion between the jurors continue, rounding out the cast with Dolly Turner (Juror No.1 and the Foreman), Hillary Mazur (Juror No.2), and Faith Nelson, (Juror No.8, an island woman). Turner gives a moving monologue about her uncle being lynched in the South, for having the courage to challenge a white sheriff, who stole from him. She is a calming presence in the midst of the heated discussion between the jurors. Juror No.2 (Mazur) is reminded by Juror No. 5 (El) that she is seen as a white woman although she is Jewish. Juror 8 (Nelson), just wants peace among the jurors, the world, her son.

What is the jury’s verdict? You will have to come and see.

The post-performance discussion with the cast after was interactive, informative, and timely. ...A Matter of Perspective is filled with great performances, and is worth a visit.

DC Metro Theater Arts

The Women’s Voices Theater Festival: ‘A Matter of Worth’ at Live Garra Theatre


A transformation awaits at Marcia E. Cole’s A Matter of Worth as the house lights dim, and the stage is lit as a cotton field with layer upon layer of waves of white cotton. A barn stands to one side, two women are hunched over in the field, and a man works a hoe. Downstage children and a woman sit around a table as the woman holds a book. Hannah, played by Judy Leak, enters as the story-teller and there is an incredibly palpable moment of suspended space and time…the past spread right before our eyes gets framed in contrast with the present-day. A call/response flow between past and present begins. This back and forth whips into a striking rhythm that the ensemble carries in a poetic, music-like undertone throughout the entire play. Both sections are performed superbly with simple directness, no embellishment, and nothing is ever sentimentalized.

Tears roll down Hannah’s cheeks in a slow silent stream as she reveals how her son is taken from her:

They named him Q, didn’t even give him a name. Just a letter. They made us watch. The dogs about ripped the hide off him. They beat him Till he stopped hollerin’. They beat him Till he stopped movin’. Wouldn’t let us bury him. Any fool knows you can’t let a body there on the ground a spirit can’t rest that way.

Because of that nefarious unrest we are fortunate to hear the voice of a native Washingtonian writer, Marcia E. Cole. The local Women’s Voices Theater Festival has selected Live Garra Theatre to present A Matter of Worth. Cole has been awarded the College Language Association Creative Writing honor across three genres – drama, poetry, and short story. This is her first play. As her biography notes the work is a reflection of “her strong advocacy for literacy” and her belief that “the arts are essential to understanding the world we live in whether by examining the past or looking to the future.”

Please keep writing Ms. Cole; the country needs to hear your voice, the world needs to hear your voice! Your underlying messages are many. All ring true, especially those formidable words…”if you don’t know who you are…” and what and who you believe “is the only one who can set my worth” spoken from the mouth of the enslaved Hannah who knows there “must be something powerful about words” serves as a call to our shared humanness and being better human beings in every spoken word of this work.

The play’s director and Artistic Director of Live Garra, Wanda Whiteside, creates a painfully credible story-telling exchange between every character. Her direction essentializes every word and gesture down to its core. There are no frills. Just truth. Whiteside demonstrates an uncanny ability to let what is on the page resonate with the physicality of the actor. The story-reader or teacher, Karen Lawrence, gives pure, powerfully direct recitations that are punctuated and contrasted with the elder’s story-telling. This contrast works beautifully to build the poesy of the writing as well as take the audience on the arc of the play.

Christa M. Bennett, Antoinette Greene-Fisher, and Clyde McKnight give exceptional performances through use of masks, props, costume, and also through subtle physicality. Most memorable is their approach into the space of the audience calling and shouting every derogatory name a person can be called when seen through the lens of racism. This powerful moment leaving the “light” of the stage, coming into the “darkness” of the audience too is contrasted with other moments of joyous dance and rhyming song!

The re-creation of the auction sounds, the feeling of being suspended in time, the going backwards and forwards all support Cole’s theme of truly knowing one’s worth and resonates with her words: “blessed are they who paved a way to the future.”

A Matter of Worth, Live Garra Theatre
September 21, 2015 by Britt Oliver
One dollar, one woman, one epic story connecting a tragic past to a hopeful future; A Matter of Worth by Marcia E. Cole, allows the audience to experience slavery through the eyes of Hannah, a cotton plantation field worker, just before the abolishment of slavery. Equipped with a unique vision and a voice filled with conviction, Ms. Cole courageously guides the audience through a time of darkness in American history while shedding beacons of hope to light the way.

The opening scene unfolds with a woman, Ms. Memory, reading a storybook on a very small corner of the stage. With vast animated gestures and characterizations, Ms. Memory tells Hannah’s story to a group of wide-eyed children. White lights boldly illuminate the stage transporting the audience back in time to the days of vast southern cotton plantations, to the days before labor laws, to the days that felt hopeless to the millions of slaves who were victims of ceaseless oppression. The set design, created by Harlan Penn, served as the ideal vessel for capturing the harsh conditions of the period while offering a bit of southern comfort, a porch, a chair, and a small window to offer a tiny glimpse into the world.

Suddenly, Hannah appears, strong, bold, and seemingly secure in herself despite the fact that her master’s illness creates an uncertain future. Seventy-three year old Hannah guides the audience on her personal journey: from her initial experience as a long-term plantation slave to the jarring death of her master, placing her future in the hands of auctioneers. Her perspective offered a fresh focus on a portion of history often forgotten. Hannah’s harrowing story is told, with the help of her fellow field workers, rife with historical details that textbooks seem to have left out. For example, the fact that slaves were stripped of their clothing, their names, and ultimately their dignity. As Hannah’s story comes to a close, will she allow her auction block price of a single dollar to determine her worth?

For many African Americans, derogatory phrases and uneasy actions were unfortunate characteristics of this time including being called by racial slurs rather than by their given name, being malnourished, and receiving painful whippings by masters, and slave overseers. In order to show there was hope during those troubling times, director Wanda Whiteside incorporated inspirational spirituals, dances, and poetry to bridge the gap between slavery and African culture. The narrative was so profoundly poetic it bore a Shakespearian cadence.

It takes a strong ensemble to pull off such eloquent words with ease and emotional conviction. Whiteside assembled a talented, collaborative, collection of actors who were deeply connected to the storyline and eager to engage the audience in a captivating manor. Judy Leak’s depiction of Hannah reflected her wide emotional range as an actor. Whether she confidently informed us of Hannah’s various talents or tearfully explained how she was stripped of her birth name, Ms. Leak brought Hannah to life by giving her so many dimensions.

A Matter of Worth ———————
The Young Voices also played a pivotal part in the retelling of history. Their sheer presence, as they actively engaged in the story by virtue of listening, offered a direct connection from generation to generation. They also served as a metaphor for the fact that the past shall not be forgotten, but through understanding, the future will be a hopeful one. Ms. Memory further conveyed the hopeful undertone of the dialogue by reciting each tale with a bubbly burst of energy as she read Hannah’s story to the children.

Conversely, chorus members/plantation field workers Clyde McKnight, Antoinette Greene-Fisher, and Christa M. Bennett, offered raw performances as they recited grizzly facts that are often hard to stomach. Whiteside cleverly chose to engage the audience in the gritty historical recollections by having chorus members speak and move into the audience bringing us out of our comfort zone and into the harsh reality of slave life.

A Matter of Worth explores a time of degradation with dignity and creativity. Careful construction of the script, ensemble, and the crew allowed the audience to enter a troubling time while keeping the knowledge of a hopeful future in mind. This story is a must see for truth seekers old and young. Ms. Cole presents the facts in such a way that slavery is far from a mere period in history, slavery is finally personified.


A Matter of Worth by Marcia E. Cole . Directed by Wanda Whiteside . Featuring Antoinette Greene-Fisher, Christa M. Bennet, Clyde McKnight, Karen Lawrence, Chaniah Taylor, Khari Dawson, Jonathan Waller, and Judy Leak . Scenic Design: Harlan Penn . Prop Master: Dulcinea Bowers . Stage Manager: Vicki Sussman . Produced by Live Garra Theatre . Reviewed by Britt Oliver.