More Relevant Than Ever: “The Crucible” Opens At PlayMakers

In a time of political turmoil, Playmakers Repertory Company is breathing new life into a classic about witch hunts.

Opening Wednesday, Playmakers revisits Arthur Miller’s classic “The Crucible,” the play that opened Playmakers’ first season back in 1976. It’s set in the 17th century, during the infamous Salem witch trials – but Miller wrote it in the 1950s, amidst the “witch hunts” of Joseph McCarthy, so the play is meant to resonate in any time when people are unfairly targeted, ostracized, or persecuted.

Visiting artist Ariel Shafir stars as John Proctor; he says the play examines how we have to adhere to our principles even when that seems impossible – and that makes it more relevant now than ever.

“We all are faced with the gap,” he says, “between who we think we are, what we think we believe, and what we actually have to do to protect those ethics and principles.”

Fellow visiting artist Sarita Ocon plays John’s wife Elizabeth; she says her role is a reflection on the difficult choices that women face regarding their own principles, an especially timely topic this year.

“I still want to show a sense of integrity and courage in some of (Elizabeth’s) text,” Ocon says, “where she’s coming forward and speaking up about a situation that has created some dire circumstances.”

Shafir, Ocon, and director Desdemona Chiang spoke with Aaron Keck on WCHL, and Shafir and Ocon read a scene from “The Crucible.”


“The Crucible” is an important piece of PlayMakers’ history, but director Desdemona Chiang is also leading the company into uncharted territory. She’s staging the show in the round, something she believes PlayMakers has never done before – to give audience members a chance to view not only the actors, but also each other.

“It’s valuable for audiences to see each other, to see the play through our fellow audience members,” she says. “There really is no way you can get away from the fact that (“The Crucible”) is about us, right now, today, in this place and time.”

The Crucible opens Wednesday, October 19, and runs through Sunday, November 6. For ticket information, visit

Will Arrington contributed to this report.

Report: Alcohol A Factor in Fatal Wrong-Way Wreck in Chapel Hill

A toxicology report shows that alcohol was involved in a fatal wrong-way crash on Raleigh Road earlier this summer.

The marketing and press director at UNC’s PlayMakers Repertory Company was driving with a blood-alcohol content nearly three times the legal limit when she was killed in a head-on crash earlier this year.

The News & Observer reported on Monday that the toxicology report from the office of the North Carolina Chief Medical Examiner showed Connie Mahan’s BAC was between .21 and .22 the night of the crash. The legal limit to drive for individuals over 21 years of age in North Carolina is .08.

Police say the accident took place around 9:39 on the night of Thursday, August 25. The vehicle being operated by Mahan was traveling west in the eastbound lane of Raleigh Road and ran into another vehicle.

The other driver was treated for minor injuries at the scene and released, according to police.

In a statement released on the PlayMakers Facebook page following the crash, Mahan was described as “a cherished colleague and champion of theatre throughout North Carolina.”

Mahan was 62 years old.

“We Drew A Circle And Took Him In!”: PlayMakers Opens 2016-17 Season

Class is back in session in Chapel Hill, and that also means it’s theater season again.

PlayMakers Repertory Company is opening its 2016-17 season this week with the world premiere of “Draw the Circle,” a one-man show written and performed by Mashuq Mushtaq Deen. Deen has written numerous plays that have been performed at major theaters in New York and across the country, but this is his first one-man show – and it’s an extremely personal project.

Photo courtesy of Deen.

Photo courtesy of Deen.

Deen is a transgender man from a Muslim immigrant family – and “Draw the Circle” is an autobiographical show about how they came to terms with his transition. It’s autobiographical, but Deen doesn’t play himself – instead, he plays his family members, a wide variety of them.

“Draw the Circle” touches on several sensitive subjects, where there’s often conflict and tempers often flare – but Deen says this show is a comedy, and the primary drivers are acceptance and love. “There are no bad guys in this play,” he said in a conversation with PlayMakers. “There are people struggling to love in a world that is changing around them, and sometimes the struggle is the love.”

Of course “Draw the Circle” is especially relevant in today’s political climate, where fear of Muslims is still rampant and transgender people are struggling for acceptance as well (especially in post-HB2 North Carolina). We often get pessimistic listening to those conversations, but Deen says “Circle” is an optimistic play – about how we can be more inclusive, more accepting, and more loving.

The title comes from a famous Edwin Markham poem that encapsulates the theme succinctly:

He drew a circle that shut me out–
Heretic, rebel, thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!

Deen stopped by WCHL on Monday and discussed the show with Aaron Keck.


“Draw the Circle” opens on Wednesday, August 24, and runs through Sunday the 28th at PlayMakers. (It’s the first show of this year’s PRC2 series.) For more information, additional resources, and tickets, visit this link.

Mashuq Mushtaq Deen and Aaron Keck. Photo courtesy of Deen.

Mashuq Mushtaq Deen and Aaron Keck. Photo courtesy of Deen.

‘Violet’ Opens At PlayMakers Theater Featuring Local Students

Twenty-three students from 17 different high schools have taken over Chapel Hill’s PlayMakers Theater. With opening night of their musical, ‘Violet’, just around the corner, the students of the Summer Youth Conservatory are putting the finishing touches on their rendition of the Tony Award-winning show.

This summer marks the tenth anniversary of the PlayMakers Summer Youth Conservatory – the intensive program that unites high school students from across North Carolina who share a love of musical theater.

‘Violet’ is the story of a young girl from North Carolina who seeks the healing touch of a TV preacher.

Thomas Cassidy as Preacher and Lili Whittier as Young Vi. Photo via Ken A Huth.

Thomas Cassidy as Preacher and Lili Whittier as Young Vi. Photo via Ken A Huth.

“The show is about courage and forgiveness and how far will you go to have a better life,” said director and choreographer Matthew Steffens.

The musical is adapted from a book by the late UNC professor Doris Betts, and covers a range of social issues and music genres – something Steffens said the students have explored and handled like professionals.

“I don’t approach them any differently than professional actors,” said Steffens, who has performed, directed and choreographed shows on Broadway. “I don’t know that I would have 23 professional actors willing to go on this journey the way we’ve gone on this journey together.”

On this journey is Lili Whittier, a rising senior at Carolina Friends School, who plays Young Violet.

“I’ve been doing this program for the last three years and I honestly wouldn’t want to spend my summer any other way,” she said.

Wilson Plonk as Monty. Photo via Ken A. Huth.

Wilson Plonk as Monty. Photo via Ken A. Huth.

Whittier is one of 100 North Carolina students who auditioned for the 23 roles in ‘Violet.’ Over the past five weeks, the cast of young actors has rehearsed seven hours a day, five days a week. Supported by professional lightening designers, costume designers, set designers and more, the students experience what life is like as working actors and technicians.

“It’s so great to go from a high school setting to a professional setting and to dedicate all your time to this one show,” said Carrboro High School senior, Thomas Cassidy, who plays the TV preacher.

One of Cassidy’s friends, Wilson Plonk, plays a soldier Violet meets on her journey. He says working in a professional environment will help him transition into the theater program at the University of Michigan where he will attend in the fall.

“This is something that is so invaluable for someone like me who is trying to go into the craft because it’s a glimpse of something you actually get to see in the real world,” Plonk said.

Together, the two actors agreed that the show is about self-acceptance.

“’Violet’ is a story about making peace with the outside world judging you and making peace with who you are,” Plonk said. “It’s making peace with the parts of yourself that you don’t like,” Cassidy added. “It’s coming to terms with who you are.”

Presyce Baez as Flick. Photo via Ken A. Huth.

Presyce Baez as Flick. Photo via Ken A. Huth.

Presyce Baez is a Carrboro High School graduate, who in the fall, will be attending Dark Horse Institute in Nashville.

“It’s really been a huge honor to be here with all of these great people,” he said.

Baez said he’s found ways to relate the show’s themes to issues he sees today in the news.

“It talks about a lot of themes that we struggle with today like inner beauty, there are some racial issues that come up, and I think that’s something very present in today’s society.”

Whittier said despite some of the more serious themes, the show is about hope and faith and will leave the audience with plenty to smile about.

“Even though it’s set in the 60s, there are so many messages that can be drawn from it that you can apply today to your own life,” Whittier said. “Everyone will get something different which is why I think it’s so wonderful.”

The show runs July 20th through the 31st at the Paul Green Theater. More information can be found at

PlayMakers Summer Youth Conservatory Goes “Violet”

Chapel Hill’s theater scene is about to get a midsummer boost, as PlayMakers Repertory Company’s Summer Youth Conservatory hits the stage with its annual musical.

PlayMakers’ Summer Youth Conservatory brings together dozens of Triangle-area high schoolers for a summer of intensive training in the theater. Working with PlayMakers company members and visiting guests, the students spend over a month preparing a musical – developing their on- and off-stage skills along the way.

This year’s show is “Violet,” a musical written by Brian Crawley with music by Tony-winning composer Jeanine Tesori. Based on a short story by longtime UNC professor Doris Betts, “Violet” tells the story of a young woman in the mid-1960s who comes of age while journeying from North Carolina to Oklahoma to seek treatment for a disfiguring scar.

Learn more about “Violet” here.

The cast and crew includes nearly three dozen high schoolers from 17 area high schools – including Ainsley Seiger, who stars in the title role. A recent graduate of Apex High School, Seiger is a veteran of the Summer Youth Conservatory: she also appeared as Adelaide in last year’s “Guys and Dolls” and as Amber Von Tussle in 2014’s “Hairspray.” Seiger recently won the Triangle Rising Star Award as best actress – and in addition to her time in Chapel Hill, she’s also been in New York this summer, competing in the National High School Musical Theatre Awards.

Directing the show is another SYC vet, Matthew Steffens – a New York-based actor, director and choreographer who’s appeared on Broadway (and on screen in films like “Across the Universe”) and directed several Off-Broadway shows. (He also served as choreographer on “Guys and Dolls” and “Hairspray” for the SYC.)

Steffens and Seiger joined Aaron Keck on WCHL to discuss (and perform a piece from) “Violet.”


“Violet” opens at PlayMakers on Wednesday, July 20 and runs through July 31. For tickets and a full schedule, visit

PlayMakers Wraps Up Season With “Real Americans”

The American heartland is full of great characters – and a bunch of them are making their way to the Chapel Hill stage this weekend.

PlayMakers Repertory Company wraps up its PRC2 series this weekend with a one-man show called “The Real Americans,” written and performed by NYC-based playwright/journalist Dan Hoyle based on interviews conducted with Americans across the country. (The Huffington Post called the end result “nothing short of brilliant.”)

Hoyle – a master of many voices who specializes in “journalistic theater” – says he drove across the country in a van, avoiding the interstates, stopping in small towns and talking with folks about their lives. (How many interviews did he conduct? It’s hard to say: Hoyle says some of his best material came from random encounters that hardly count as ‘interviews’ at all.)

Dan Hoyle spoke this week with WCHL’s Aaron Keck.


“The Real Americans” runs through Sunday, May 1, with shows at 7:30 pm each night and 2 pm on Sunday. Visit for tickets.

“Broadway Twisted”: Showtunes, Flipped, For A Cause

Monday, April 11, Local 506 in Chapel Hill plays host to the fourth annual “Broadway Twisted” event – featuring classic showtunes performed by more than 20 local actors.

The gimmick? All these songs are gender-swapped: male actors playing women, female actors playing men.

“Broadway Twisted” got its start in Chapel Hill four years ago and it’s grown every year. It’s inspired by the annual “Broadway Backwards” event in New York City, which raises money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Chapel Hill’s version is also for a cause: proceeds from “Broadway Twisted” will also go to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, as well as the North Carolina AIDS Action Network (NCAAN).

This year’s show is directed by Arielle Yoder and Jorge Donoso. (You’ve seen them both on stage at PlayMakers and elsewhere around the area. Many of the 22 performers are PlayMakers vets, including some who are currently performing in “Sweeney Todd.”)

Yoder and Donoso stopped by WCHL and spoke with Aaron Keck. (They also previewed the songs they’ll be performing on Monday: Yoder singing “You’ll Be Back” from the musical Hamilton; Donoso singing “Out Tonight” from Rent.)


“Broadway Twisted” takes place Monday, April 11, at Local 506 on West Franklin Street. Doors open at 7; the show begins at 8. Tickets are $10.

Visit for more information and tickets.

There Will Be Blood: “Sweeney Todd” At PlayMakers

It’s bloody, gory, grisly, morbid…and hilariously funny. And it’s one of the most beloved musicals of all time.

PlayMakers Repertory Company is wrapping up its 2015-16 mainstage season with the Sondheim classic “Sweeney Todd.” Helmed by New York-based director Jen Wineman and starring Broadway vets David St. Louis and Annie Golden (you’ve seen Golden as Norma on “Orange is the New Black”), “Sweeney” tells the tale of a falsely-imprisoned barber and his quest for revenge on the sinister judge who wronged him. (He also takes out a fair bit of vengeance on society as a whole. “It’s man devouring man, my dear, and who are we to deny it in here?”)

Following “Assassins” and “Into the Woods,” “Sweeney Todd” is PlayMakers’ third Sondheim musical in as many years. (Musical director Mark Hartman has arranged the music for all three.)

Director Jen Wineman spoke this week with WCHL’s Aaron Keck.


If you’d like to attend the tale, “Sweeney Todd” opens on Wednesday, March 30 and runs through Saturday, April 23.

For showtimes, tickets, and a schedule of related events, visit this link.

At PlayMakers, Shows Ripped From Tomorrow’s Headlines

You still have about a week to head to PlayMakers Repertory Company and catch their latest production, “We Are Proud To Present…” by Jackie Sibblies Drury. (The full title is a lot longer.) It’s a powerful experience: insightful and meaningful, simultaneously funny and gut-wrenching, written and staged in a way that’s probably unlike any play you’ve seen.

I saw it a couple days ago and I’m still ruminating on it. Here’s the plot in a nutshell, to the extent that there is one: we open on six actors, three white and three black, who are in the process of developing a play (sorry: a “presentation!”) about a forgotten historical atrocity, the early-20th-century genocide of the Herero people by German colonizers in southwest Africa. (A “rehearsal Holocaust”? No, dude, an actual holocaust.) Knowing their limitations, the actors want to tell the story as realistically as possible, using only the words and experiences of the actual survivors – but all they have to work with are letters written by the German soldiers. Are we just telling yet another story about white people, with the victims pushed to the back as setpieces? What if we look inside ourselves for inspiration? If we do that, won’t we just end up talking about American racism, with the Herero forgotten? Is there any way of avoiding that in the first place? Is that enough?

(Most plays, when you describe the plot, you talk about one event followed by another. In this play, the plot is one new question following another.)

Photo by Jon Gardiner via

Photo by Jon Gardiner via

I want to get the word out about this play now because…well, if you’re not a theatergoer, this has been happening right under your nose without your knowing it, but for the last year now, PlayMakers has been having a really incredible run of plays that speak directly to today’s headlines with remarkable specificity.

I think it started last year with a play called “An Enemy of the People,” which basically called the Flint water crisis six months before it hit the news. A perfectly well-meaning but ultimately self-serving businessman tries to cut costs and inadvertently winds up poisoning a town’s water supply; political and cultural leaders are in cahoots with the business leader, so they look the other way; and the whistleblower who tries to warn people is demonized and ostracized. (Presumably not long after the play ends, the town is forced to admit the whistleblower had been right all along, at which point Play Marco Rubio gets up and delivers a speech about how it’s not nice to point fingers.)

Anthony Newfield as Peter Stockmann and Michael Bryan French as Thomas Stockmann in "Enemy of the People." (Photo by Jon Gardiner via

Anthony Newfield as Peter Stockmann and Michael Bryan French as Thomas Stockmann in “Enemy of the People.” (Photo by Jon Gardiner via

Then this season began with a taut little show called “Disgraced,” which just so happened to hit the stage at the exact moment Donald Trump started winning polls and the Syrian refugee crisis became a cover story. A New York lawyer, Pakistani by birth, denies his heritage and rejects Islam as a backwards faith – but he still winds up losing a promotion, losing his friends, losing his family, and losing his job when he speaks up for an imam who’s being unjustly persecuted. (And how much has he really renounced the “backwards” side of the faith?) “Disgraced” was a hit-or-miss show for me, but there’s a dinner-party scene I still think about, so smart and complex and well-staged and powerful…and the title of the show is endlessly fascinating. “Disgraced.” The main character is “disgraced” by the end, but at what point does he become “disgraced”? Is it at the end of the dinner party when he reveals his ugly side? Is it when he speaks up on behalf of a social pariah? Is it when he first denies his heritage? Nope – as far as white America is concerned, he’s actually “disgraced” before the play even begins. If your background is Middle Eastern or Muslim, Americans will assume you’re a potential terrorist unless you prove otherwise – it’s our default setting – so it’s not enough to deny your heritage, you have to acknowledge and loudly denounce it, or else you’re automatically suspect. (If you just deny it, then, gosh, you’re hiding something. What are you trying to hide?) All of this played out on stage in Chapel Hill while, at the same time, just down the road, our own governor was standing in front of the cameras proudly refusing to accept any more so-called “refugees” because golly gosh, how do we know they’re not secretly terrorists? The timing was impeccable.

And now we have “We Are Proud to Present,” which is playing on stage right now – even as Donald Trump encourages his supporters to assault black protestors at rallies across the country – and even as the facts are still coming in about yet another police shooting. (We shouldn’t judge individual cases until all the details are in. We should be conscious, though, that statistically blacks and whites get treated differently, not just ‘somewhere else’ but also right here, not just by police but by society as a whole, not just by other people but also by ourselves.)

If you’ve been keeping up with PlayMakers recently, you already know what I’m talking about.

If you haven’t been following them – well, it’s worth being aware. They’ve been incredibly prescient lately, when it comes to choosing plays. Their shows always hit the stage right when the relevant issue becomes especially salient. It’s an uncanny talent.

Why am I mentioning this now, you ask?

Their next show is “Sweeney Todd.” Don’t switch your stylist.

“We Are Proud To Present…” runs through Sunday, March 13. Click here for ticket info.

PlayMakers Is Proud To Present “We Are Proud To Present”

It might be the longest title in PlayMakers Repertory Company history.

PRC’s next mainstage production is (deep breath) “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, From the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915,” by Jackie Sibblies Drury – opening Wednesday, February 24, and running through Sunday, March 13.

The title is irreverent and comical, but it also refers to the troubling specter of colonialism and its aftermath – and fittingly, director Desdemona Chiang says the play too is wildly funny but also highly challenging. It’s about a group of actors in the present day, white and black, rehearsing a performance piece about a little-known colonial genocide (which really happened); the actors are well-intentioned, of course, but along the way their own assumptions and prejudices come to the fore – with “powerful, surprising, and terrifying” results.

Desdemona Chiang spoke last week with WCHL’s Aaron Keck.


“We Are Proud to Present” has played to rave reviews in New York; it’s making its Chapel Hill debut with PlayMakers.

Related special events include a discussion with the director and cast at Fearrington Village’s Granary Cafe on Monday, February 15, at 6 pm; an all-access performance with sign language interpretation and audio description on March 1; and free post-show discussions sponsored by the NC Psychoanalytic Society on March 12 and 13.

Visit the PlayMakers site for ticket information.