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The Power of Two Women Fighting for The Truth on Local Stages

Lois Masten Ewing and Gary Alan Wright star in "Times Like These" at California Stage.

In times like these, we need plays like “Times Like These.”

John O’Keefe’s historical drama, now at California Stage, is set in 1930’s Berlin and personalizes the unbearable terror of the rise of the Nazis in the story of two good Germans: Meta Wolf (played by Lois Masten Ewing) and Oskar Weiss (Gary Alan Wright). It is based upon an actual couple. She was a great actress, a star acclaimed by all her who saw her (even rising Nazi government personnel); he was a lesser talent who, through her prodding, rose to his own measure of greatness.

Born in Berlin, and thoroughly German, Meta became an untouchable when her Jewish heritage became public. The toll of this discrimination, emotionally and physically, turns Meta into a prisoner in her own home. She fights against the oppression of the Nazis, but what can one person do?

One person can do a lot, but she (or he) must act. Meta turns director, encouraging Oskar to take on bigger and bigger roles, to make suggestions to the play’s director that fundamentally change the impact of the original material. Imagine Hamlet as Hitler — it gives Shakespeare’s words even more power. It makes theater dangerous.

There is a reason despots try to silence journalists, attack artists and denigrate intellectuals. It is because they see the truth and reveal it — each through his or her best expression. This play, its author, its actors and director use their talents not just to remind us of a terrible history, but to suggest what appears to be a reawakening of those evil forces. The Nazis tried to wall in the Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals, coming eventually to their “final solution.” Today, our leaders seek to wall out the “other,” the third-worlders, the hungry, the deprived; to attack the rights of the LGBTQ … WXYZ communities; to reward the powerful and wealthy at the expense of the rest of us.

The play is directed by Richard Winters and co-produced by Ray Tatar’s California Stage, Theater Creations and Duende Drama and Literature, with support from the Living History Centre, dedicated to the celebration of history in artistic ways.

“Times Like These” confirms American philosopher George Santayana’s warning that “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” In telling the story of Meta and Oskar, playwright O’Keefe reminds us of a history that threatens — but doesn’t have to — repeat itself.

“Times Like These” continues at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 18 at California Stage’s Wilkerson Theatre in the R25 Arts Complex, 25th and R streets. Tickets are $15-$20. For tickets or for more information, call (916) 451-5822 or go to CalStage.org.

On Your Feet!

I never thought of Gloria Estefan as a political activist. I never thought about her much at all — just enjoyed her music. Sure, she represented Latino (particularly Cuban) immigrants and celebrated the music of that island so close to our country.

But seeing “On Your Feet,” the Emilio and Gloria Estefan Broadway musical now at the Community Center Theater, I have a new appreciation of her and her music.  In 2015 Gloria and Emilio were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for their contributions to music and Latin American culture. There is an especially effective scene (which drew unexpected applause from Tuesday’s opening night audience) in which Emilio stares a recalcitrant record executive in the face and demands, “Look at this face. This is the face of America!”

Who would have thought that a Gloria Estefan song would so tightly relate to Cal Stage’s “Times Like These”? Consider these lyrics from the show’s title tune:

“Get on your feet/Get up and make it happen/Get on your feet/Stand up and take some action/Get on your feet/Don’t stop before it’s over/Get on your feet.”

Christie Prades stars as Gloria and Ektor Rivera plays Emilio. Nancy Ticotin, strong as Gloria’s mother, and Alma Cuervo, delightful as her grandmother Consuelo are especially fine among the large cast that features a slew of talented Latino singers, dancers and actors.

The play is bright and energetic, tracing the life of Gloria from her days as a young Cuban immigrant in Miami to her meeting Emilio, an older immigrant, Bacardi rum representative and musician with dreams of at least a bit of fame and fortune. When he persuades Gloria to join his Miami Latin Boys band (soon renamed Miami Sound Machine and, later, Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine), things heat up, especially the relationship between Gloria and Emilio. The play follows their rise to fame (despite family losses and acrimony) until that night — March 20, 1990 — when the band’s bus was hit by a tractor-trailer on a snowy road in Pennsylvania, leaving Gloria with a broken vertebra in her back. A long surgery to realign her spine and implant steel rods in her back was successful but whether she would ever walk, let alone dance, again was in question.

Months later, the play picks up — and concludes — with her successful return to the stage on Dick Clark’s “American Music Awards” broadcast. This abrupt ending is appropriate and inspiring — how else was it going to end? —  but it doesn’t hint at Estefan’s continued success and importance to the music industry and American culture.

“On your Feet!” continues at 2 and 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento. Tickets are $26-$105. For tickets or for more information , call  (916) 808-5181 or go to BroadwaySacramento.com

Photo courtesy of California Stage.

About the author

Jim Carnes

Jim Carnes has masters degrees in English and journalism and is a former National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in popular culture at Stanford University. He has covered Sacramento arts and entertainment for more than 20 years. He currently writes about and reviews theater, dance, music and events in the Sacramento area.

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