When Frank DiLella, the three-time Emmy-award-winning theater journalist who hosts the popular “On Stage” program on New York’s top-ranked NY1 television station, was a 4-year-old Philadelphian, his mother took him to the Forrest Theatre to see “Cats.”
“When I walked into that building, that was church for me. I don’t consider myself a religious person, but I was changed,” he said. “There was a communion moment walking into the theater. I didn’t want to leave.”
As a journalist and, yes, a cheerleader, for New York’s theater community, DiLella was devastated when the pandemic shut down Broadway on March 12, 2020.
“I made a commitment to the community,” he said. “I promised that we would follow this story until the lights shine again on Broadway.” And he did, with stories about survival and grit. (Lead ballet dancer Robbie Fairchild sold flowers out of his apartment, hiring fellow dancers to deliver, for example.)
Now DiLella has turned that story and others into a PBS documentary, Great Performances: Reopening — The Broadway Revival, which premieres Tuesday, Jan. 18, at 9 p.m., and reairs on Friday, Jan. 21, at 10 p.m. on WHYY TV12. DiLella is the host of the documentary and an executive producer.
DiLella grew up in Philadelphia’s Andorra neighborhood with parents from Manayunk and Northeast Philadelphia. He attended Waldron Mercy Academy and La Salle High School, drawn to both theater programs; participated in theater programs offered by the Philadelphia School District, Villanova University, and the Annenberg Center; and acted in community theater groups, among them the Players Club of Swarthmore. He dreamed of acting professionally until reality struck when he enrolled in Fordham University’s theater program and saw incredible talent among his classmates.
“If I’m going to stay a part of this community, I have to think of Plan B,” he thought. Plan B was journalism. DiLella snagged an internship with NY1 as a sophomore and has been there ever since. While he has done nearly every job at the station, there’s nothing that excites him more than interviewing his idols on his television show.
Those contacts came in handy when PBS asked DiLella to turn around his documentary in less than three months.
Great Performances: Reopening — The Broadway Revival, includes interviews with Andrew Lloyd Webber (remember how much DiLella loved “Cats?”), Adrienne Warren, Sara Bareilles, and a host of others, many of whom DiLella has on speed dial. There are behind-the-scenes looks at emotional first rehearsals, and the documentary captures the grand reopening of Broadway on Sept. 14, 2021, when curtains rose on “The Lion King,” “Wicked,” and “Chicago.”
“The takeaway to walk away with is that the strength and resilience of this community is like nothing else,” DiLella said. “Ninety-seven thousand people were out of work, and that work did not come back until a year and a half later.
“There’s no people like show people and it’s so true. Broadway is essential. Artists are also essential workers,” he said. “Clip their wings and they’ll still find a way to perform.”
Premieres Tuesday, Jan. 18 at 9 p.m. on PBS, re-airs on PBS on Friday, Jan. 21, at 10 p.m. Streaming available Jan. 18 through Feb. 15 via pbs.org/gperf and the PBS Video app, and after that via PBS Passport, pbs.org/passport/videos/.
Alice Childress’ ‘Wine in the Wilderness’
Born in Charleston, S.C., in 1912, Alice Childress went on to become one of the most celebrated female Black playwrights and novelists of her time with her work particularly focused on the experience of urban Black people.
At EgoPo Classic Theater, Ontaria Kim Wilson plays Tommy, the lead character in Childress’ “Wine in the Wilderness.” Written in 1969, Childress’ play takes place against the backdrop of the 1964 riots in Harlem.
The plot pivots around “Tommy, who is an everyday Black woman who works at a dress factory. She doesn’t have a lot of education,” Wilson said. “She comes into contact with these middle-class, bourgeois [Black people] who are educated. It’s a class battle until she shows them that she is human, just like them.”
The bourgeois Black people, Wilson said, “are interested in revolution in a textbook sense.” But it’s not exactly textbook for Tommy, whose real name is Tomorrow Marie. The revolution costs Tommy her home because she lived in an apartment above a grocery store destroyed in the conflict.
Wilson admires Tommy because “I’m all about people walking in their power. She’s unapologetic about who she is. She has experienced trauma. She has lost everything except a brown paper bag and the clothes on her back. Yet she’s still moving and shaking and trying not to miss a beat.”
The revolutionaries, Wilson explained, had recruited Tommy to exemplify the poorest of the poor, someone to be pitied, a victim. “She turns out to be the sun. She turned out to be the leader,” Wilson said. “She becomes the voice of the people.”
Wilson, who grew up in Philadelphia and will graduate from Temple University in May with a bachelor’s degree in theater, thinks EgoPo’s timing for “Wine in the Wilderness” is significant in light of the protests that broke out around the nation following the May 25, 2020, murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin.
“As a Black woman, watching our men just disappear daily for no reason is traumatizing, and as a people, it’s enough to put you up in arms,” Wilson said. “There’s a current that has been running for decades. After a while, that quiet storm will emerge, and it will be a storm that no one could control.”
Maybe though, theater can make a difference, illuminating the experiences of others. “We’re so divided now,” Wilson said. “I think all theater is built for change and to change one person at a time.”
Directed by Damien J. Wallace, “Wine in the Wilderness” also features Andre G. Brown, costarring as Harlem painter Bill Jamerson.
Jan. 19 through Jan. 30 at the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks St., Philadelphia. For tickets, information, egopo.org or 215-273-1414. Masks and proof of vaccination required. Also available virtually Jan. 25-30.
‘I and You’ at Bristol
With “I and You” opening next week, the timing seems spot on, but Bristol Riverside Theatre producing artistic director Amy Kaissar swears it’s strictly coincidental. Playwright Lauren Gunderson’s work was chosen well before the pandemic, Kaissar said. The plot involves an immunocompromised teenage girl who must attend high school remotely and the relationship she builds with a high school athlete who drops off an English assignment. It’s about youth, love, life, and connection.
“At the time, we picked it because it was just such a great ride with a big, fat, juicy twist at the end that had us all immediately flipping back to the beginning to read it again,” Kaissar said in a statement, adding that the isolation many suffer during the pandemic will make “the experience even richer for the audience.”
Gia Forakis directs Silvia Dionicio and JJ Wilks in their roles as Caroline and Anthony.
Jan. 25 through Feb. 13 at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol, Pa. For tickets and information, brtstage.org or 215-785-0100. Proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test required, along with masks.
Back in the Stream
If you missed 1812 Productions’ quarantine offering — three teams of Philadelphia theater creatives each producing a miniature version of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” — you’ve got a second chance. The entire series of “Set Model Theatre,” in which the teams talk through their creative processes, can be streamed free on demand. Lantern Theater Co. is also re-streaming its digital production of “The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord” written by Scott Carter. Still streaming via Lantern is its production of “Me and the Devil” by Steve H. Broadnax 3d and Charles Dumas.
“Set Model Theatre” on demand, free, through Feb. 7. For information and to stream, 1812productions.org or 215-592-9560. “The Gospel” and “Me and the Devil” on demand through Feb. 27. For tickets, information, lanterntheater.org or 215-829-0395.
Self-care for theater professionals
In these turbulent times, theater professionals are going through their own sets of soul-searching on issues of justice, diversity, and inclusion. The New Jersey Theatre Alliance, a statewide organization for nonprofit theater companies, is offering, through its Creating Change Network Roundtable Series, a free session titled “Avoiding Burnout and Promoting Healing While Working for Justice in the Arts.” Held virtually, the session runs from 10 to 11:20 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 20. Next month’s session — same time on Feb. 24 — focuses on equitable human resource practices for pay equity, hiring, retention, and more.
Interested artists and arts administrators may register at: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/CreatingChangeRoundtablesTFY22