The Happiest Song Plays Last

Photo courtesy of Dennis K Photography | From left to right: Wade Hicks [Lefty], Terence Mejos [Elliot], Maria-Tania Bandes B. Weingarden [Yaz] and Katie Jones [Shar].

Tacoma Little Theatre and University of Washington – Tacoma partner up for a show that deals with PTSD.

According to www.history.com, The Arab Spring was a series of pro-democracy uprisings that enveloped several largely Muslim countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Morrocco, and Syria. Protests filled all of those countries as large-scale political and social movements that arguably began with a single act of defiance. 

Tacoma Little Theatre (TLT), in partnership with University of Washington – Tacoma, presents “The Happiest Song Plays Last” by Quiara Alegría Hudes. Hudes is best known for writing the musical and screenplay adaptation for “In The Heights” and seems to bring that familiar energy to this play. This play is directed by Marilyn Bennett and has been running from April 29 and will end on May 15. 

This two-act play is described on the TLT website as “In a barrio living room in North Philly, an activist-turned-music professor moonlights as the local soup kitchen queen. Halfway around the world, her cousin relives his military trauma on the set of a docudrama that’s filming in Jordan. With the Egyptian revolution booming in the distance, these two young adults try to sing a defiant song of legacy and love in the face of local and global unrest.” It takes place in Philadelphia and various places in Jordan in the winter of 2011. 

While this is a big story to tell, it is told by a cast of six individuals. One cast member is Dr. Maria-Tania Bandes B. Weingarden (Dr. B) who is an Assistant Teaching Professor of the Culture, Arts and Communication division of the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. In addition to Dr. B, several positions on and offstage are filled with someone affiliated with the UW Tacoma campus. Students involved with the show keep track of how many hours they put into the show and are receiving college credit for those hours. Katie Jones, who plays Shar, is the only UWT student onstage. Other student held positions include costume design, lighting design, sound design, and backstage crew. 

The show is recommended for ages 12 and up due to some content warnings. These warnings include themes of PTSD and stories of the horrors of war, frequent strong profanity, a flashing  light effect, simulated violence, sexual suggestiveness and smoking of non-nicotine, non-tobacco, non-tar based cigarettes. 

The set was a perfect combination of a traditional theatre stage and a modernized space that embraced technology. On the traditional side, the stage had set pieces and designated spaces, which in this show was a small fully-stocked kitchen and dining room table. For the more modern side, the backdrop was an LED wall which they projected various scenes onto via a projector hanging from the ceiling. The projections were beautiful and added all the more differentiation between locations. There were several scenes projected but there is one in particular towards the beginning of the show which was a video collage of scenes from the Arab Spring. 

The show begins with a strange yet intriguing guitar riff. Anand Landon proved very quickly to be a talented, experienced guitar player and added some musical vibes to the show but it was a little unclear as to why he was there. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it. It was just a little confusing when he walked onstage. As a person who does frequently work in theatre, it was refreshing to hear live music during a straight play rather than the same recording 15 times in the month. 

While the show has a small cast, it worked out very nicely. When you have a small cast, you are more likely to have stronger bonds and when you trust your scene partner, the scene gets even better. Cousins Elliot and Yaz, played by Terence Mejos and Maria-Tania Bandes B. Weingarden respectively, have this beautiful strong bond onstage. I don’t know about you but I have never spoken to my cousins the way they do onstage due to this strong bond. 

Katie Jones makes quite an entrance with a shriek you could hear from campus. Jones plays an actress from Beverly Hills who has a colorful genetic make up and is finding her way in her heritage. You can see how she wants to learn more about her heritage but also doesn’t want to make a big deal out of it by shortening her name to Shar, as living up to Shahrnush is daunting. 

The amount of accuracy in this show is wonderful and all thanks to the use of a dramaturg, Lydia K. Valentine. A dramaturg is almost like a director or adviser that heavily researches the era or event the show is about. Valentine, who is also the assistant director, researched the Arab Spring and had facts on a screen in the lobby so the audience could understand what was happening better. 

This show deals with difficult topics such as war, PTSD and civil unrest. Mejos’ character plays an ex-marine-turned-actor who suffers from PTSD, the root of which you learn later in the show. If you’re anything like me, you do have a sense of what PTSD can do to a person and Mejos depicted it perfectly. You’re happy and completely chill one second and the next your world is spinning and you have a single memory playing on repeat like a broken record. If the scene is hard to watch, that means it’s done well. 

The show was a little hard to follow at times with two separate stories playing at the same time but both stories built each other up. Even though there are potentially triggering subjects in this show, it is definitely worth the watch. TLT puts everything into their performances and this one was no different. 

Something that many theatres have taken to doing for each of their shows is specialty cocktails. TLT created three for this show for the 21+ audience members. One is “Yaz’s Relaxer” which is a vodka cranberry drink. For the tropical fans, they have Agustin’s Coquito which is coconut milk, coconut rum, cinnamon and vanilla for a traditional Puerto Rican treat. Finally, we have A Toast to Elliot which is a simple gin and tonic. 

Chris Serface, the Managing Artistic Director, announced the 104th season of TLT which included several promising titles including the Agatha Christie classic “Murder on the Orient Express” and the next UWT partner project . The next show at Tacoma Little Theatre is “The Luck of the Irish,” directed by Lydia K. Valentine. It will run from June 3 to June 19.

While masks and proof of vaccination are still required, going to a live theatre is finally acceptable again. There’s truly nothing like seeing a live performance and even making a night of it. That being said, grab yourself some Frisko Freeze and head out for a night of theatre.

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