(“The Brothers Size” runs June 19-22 at NSU Brown Hall MainStage Theater.) 

By Montague Gammon III

Three new theater companies hit local stages for the first time as part of the Virginia Arts Festival’s 2024 Theater Festival; one is our newest fully professional Equity troupe. Shows from five established Norfolk groups fall into the Festival’s June performance window.

The Wisdom Heart Theater makes its debut with a taught, two character psychosexual drama that’s something of a contemporary cross between Shirley Jackson’s 20th Century gothic tales and Krafft-Ebbing’s 1886 “Psychopathia Sexualis,” updated. That’s “Little One,” a one act, one hour, two actor play by Hannah Moskovitch. (June 21-22, 27-29 at Old Dominion University’s Studio Theater)

The Norfolk State University Theater Company, Hampton Roads’ first professional Actors Equity troupe to open since Virginia Stage Company, reconstitutes three African gods of old as very mortal African-American men facing all-too-familiar modern problems. That’s “The Brothers Size,” by Tarell Alvin McCrane. (June 19-22 at NSU Brown Hall MainStage Theater)

ROŨGE Theatre Reinvented, aiming “to bring live performance art out of the theater and deliver it to everyday people in everyday spaces,” offered up a rock musical about the life and musical career of a genderqueer character whose reassignment surgery was botched, as a “hilarious and heartbreaking journey to find stardom and love.” Staged in a local bar, that was “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” book by John Cameron Mitchell, music and lyrics by Stephen Trask. (It ran 5/30-6/9 at 37th & Zen in Norfolk)

Generic Theater and the Arts Festival itself just did sneak into the month of June with Generic’s production of Indecent, Pulitzer winner Paula Vogel’s stunning, important play about Sholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance, the play that gave Broadway its first lesbian kiss 101 years ago, and the Festival’s showcase of similarly important songs by another Pulitzer winner, Black Lives in the Operas of Anthony Davis. Both closed June 2.

The Anthony Davis event was a homecoming for a Pulitzer winning composer whose ties to Hampton Roads date back to the the Civil War and the very foundations  and subsequent growth of Hampton University. Pieces from his operas “Amistad,” “The Central Park Five,” “X: the Life and Time of Malcolm X,” and “Tania” made it abundantly clear that opera has a vital place in all cultures and times.

“Indecent” is exactly the sort of play that cements Generic’s reputation: forceful, compelling, topical, and fearless in its look at issues such as antisemitism, censorship, and the complicity or non-compliance of artists with the commercial concerns.

Virginia Stage Company is touring, to multiple venues, “Every Brilliant Thing,” an (optionally) audience involvement piece by Duncan Macmillan “with Jonny Donohoe” (“The Narrator” in its original productions) about the child of a suicidal mom who grows from seven years old to adulthood, while compiling an ever growing list of “brilliant” things that make life worth living. (June 28 at Wells Theatre with additional dates and venues expanding)

The Little Theatre of Norfolk is the only group on this list that is producing a musical comedy, the sort of play usually associated with summer’s light stage fare. However, the hero or anti-hero of the award winning script “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” is, not to put too fine a point on it, a serial killer. (But he’s only righting an old injustice of classism, plus securing himself a title, a fortune and a bride.) Music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak, with lyrics and book by Robert L. Freedman. (5/31- 6/23)

The multi-venued CORE Theatre Ensemble, which has earned international attention – Chile, Canada, Belgium, Lithuania – and a rep for imaginative staging and pinpoint acting, makes a one night stand at the Wells Theatre with their stage adaptation of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Washington Irving’s classic 1820 short story about Ichabod Crane and The Headless Horseman. Irving is best known for “Rip Van Winkle,” but there are elements of harassment and bullying in this ostensible, or tongue in cheek, ghost tale that make it attention worthy, even when it’s not All Hallows Eve. (June 20)

The erudite self-taught Irving, biographer of some greats and friend to many others, diplomat to England and Spain, recipient of an honorary doctorate from Oxford and a medal from England’s Royal Society of Literature, first to use Gotham (Anglo Saxon for Goat’s Town) for New York and coiner of the name Knickerbocker and apparently the phrase “the almighty dollar,” and, most notably for this story, hoaxer and satirist extraordinaire, wrote this faint praise of schoolteacher. Crane, the primary protagonist of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow:”

“…a man of great erudition, for he had read several books quite through, and was a perfect master of Cotton Mather’s History of New England Witchcraft, in which, by the way, he most firmly and potently believed.”

Expect both humor and insight. CORE has a history of teasing out important undercurrents from works that it stages. It turned its 2007 dramatization of the 1892 short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” into a potent look at postpartum depression (and other issues of the repression of women), a term unknown in the 19th Century.

If Irving had tongue somewhat in cheek, then “Gentleman’s Guide,” at Little Theatre of Norfolk, looks like an old time ‘baccy chawin’ baseball player. Literally poor Monty, initially unwittingly noble by nature, by nurture lower class, finds some 8 people stand between him and his heritage as ​​Lord Montague D’Ysquith Navarro, Ninth Earl of Highhurst. Once the adult, orphaned Monty learns this, and falls for a pair of ladies who like their suitors titled and wealthy, the D’Ysquith family seems beset by a curse that makes King Tut’s pale as Casper the Ghost. It’s “black comedy” at its most stygian as coincidence and contrivance combine to elevate murderous Montague, until he finds himself about to ascend the gallow’s stairs for the one killing he did not commit. The book (story) won 2014 Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Best or Outstanding Awards, the lyrics got the nod from the Drama Desk, and the Broadway production won a host of other awards and was nominated for many more.

Virginia Stage Company’s “Every Brilliant Thing” is a moving, sometimes teary, sometimes funny, unfailingly life affirming one performer + willing audience members, one-hour show about suicidal depression, suicide attempts and suicide itself. 

In the words of VSC Producing Director Tom Quaintance,  the play “is meant to be the beginning of a conversation, not the end of it…it takes you to some tough places, it doesn’t leave you there.” Last year’s tour to local military facilities earned praise from audience members about its effectiveness as a suicide prevention tool, and its accessible approach to a difficult subject. 

Reviewers have heaped praise on other productions; the New York Times called the play “captivating;” Time Out London said, “Filled to the brim with joy…beautiful, heart wrenching, and very funny.”

While the title character of ROŨGE Theatre’s “Hedwig” is genderqueer, or trans, or post-op, or a they or a she – preferred polite terminology has been genderfluid since the rock musical first played Off-Broadway and won an Obie and a Critics Circle Award in 1998 – the show is not a niche piece. ROŨGE founder and the show’s director, Patrick Mullins made this point:

“I think its an amazing discussion of what it means to be whole and how we spend our lives looking for completion with someone else or something else and its all right there within us. It’s a message for everybody, and to get to deliver it in such a unique and intimate way is really special.”

The intimacy, in the 60-seat space of 37th and Zen, he noted, was very much like the original performance spaces–cafés, clubs, bars–of the shows’ versions before Off-Broadway, and the idea of up close audience-actor encounters is central to this new troupe’s purpose.

There’s nothing new about gender fluidity; we have records of it in cuneiform, the word’s first known written language, from ancient Mesopotamia some 6,000 years ago. (Or 4004 BCE, if you will.)

The new Norfolk State University Theater Company’s offering of “The Brothers Size” shifts from current realities; a Black man just out of prison looks to his auto mechanic brother for a way to reintegrate with society – to simplify the plot drastically; and the dreamscapes of the two brothers plus another former inmate. Dreaming, they take on the identities of the Yoruba gods after whom they are named. An NSU production 10 years ago, during director Professor Anthony Stockard’s first year here, won honors at the Kennedy Center American National Theatre Festival; this production reunites the same cast, who are now all working professional actors.

Wisdom Heart is the creation of Paul Lasakow and Staci Murawski. “Little One” is simply a stunning piece: two actors play and narrate the emotionally fierce, moving tale of two adopted kids as they grow up. Aaron is 6 when 4 year old Claire – an arbitrary name given her when she was found alone in an abandoned building – becomes his new sister. She is deeply troubled, to say the least. There’s an eerie subplot about unseen reclusive neighbors, right out of old tabloid tales. (Good spoiler: Claire and Aaron are alive at the end of the play.)

Lasakow says, “Our mission is to produce  plays in a small performance spaces that are contemporary and explore the range of human relationships. [This] is a brilliantly written play conducive to the small performance spaces that we are dedicated to using, and an opportunity for actors to turn in powerhouse performances.”

Rob Cross, VAF’s head honcho, pointed out in a brief phone chat that the theatrical season here does not end in May, and that he has “always been intrigued by the passion and commitment of these smaller companies…that do really good work.”


Norfolk Theatre Festival

For information on all 8 companies, productions, dates and venues go to