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Edited and Published by Robert W. McDowell

February 1, 2024 Issue
PART 3 (January 27, 2023)

A FREE Weekly E-mail Newsletter Covering Theater, Dance, Music, and Film in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill/Carrboro Area of North Carolina Since April 2001.


Luminous Performances by Juan Isler and
Byron Jennings II Make Hymn Another
Must-See Production at Burning Coal

Hymn at Burning Coal Theatre Company stars Juan Isler (left) as Benny and Byron Jennings II as Gil (photo by Cari-Grindem Corbett)

Burning Coal Theatre Company's current production of Lolita Chakrabarti's Hymn -- which plays through Sunday, Feb. 11th, in the Murphey School Auditorium in Raleigh -- is a definite "must-see." Under the direction of marcus d. harvey, actors Byron Jennings II and Juan Isler positively shine. Both of them had Thursday's opening-night audience thoroughly captivated from their initial entrances all the way until their final exits.

Hymn is not "musical theater," but you will hear some quality singing and see some tightly choreographed dancing. I wouldn't call Hymn a "comedy," but you will find plenty of laughable moments. I wouldn't call Hymn a "tragedy," but you will see characters experiencing moments of loss and of grief. In addition, you will have the opportunity to witness the touching moments, engendered by the birth and subsequent growth of genuine brotherly love.

Juan Isler stars as Benny in Hymn, (photo by Cari-Grindem Corbett)

The Play:

Benny (Juan Isler) and Gil (Byron Jennings) are half-brothers. When they meet at their father's funeral, neither has had a clue that the other existed. Gil has been raised -- with three older sisters -- as part of a stable, middle-class, two-parent family. Benny's situation was quite different; his mother had tried to raise him as a single parent, but her emotional problems had made his upbringing precariously unstable.

When we first see Benny, he is drunk and having an altercation with a bartender. We don't learn until later that his mother had never told him anything about his father and that he had not learned his father's identity until he learned of his death.

Our first view of Gil is of him speaking at the funeral. It is when the funeral is over, and Gil is bidding farewell to the last few attendees, that Benny approaches him and identifies himself.

Gil is at first skeptical, suspicious, and guarded, but then the proof comes in. What follows is a series of short, intimate scenes in which we see the two brothers interacting and becoming closer; and we hear about Benny and his wife and children becoming a part of the larger family.

Juan Isler (left) as Benny and Byron Jennings II as Gil rehearse Hymn for Burning Coal (photo by Cari-Grindem Corbett)

The Acting:

Isler and Jennings are each amazing, and their onstage chemistry makes them even more so. In their hands, the characters' spontaneity, along with their mutual love and respect, shows a steady growth.

Jennings' Gil has the optimistic outlook and ambition that one would expect from someone with his upbringing. And Jennings' 100-watt smile is perfect for the role. (Side Note: Jennings also choreographed the dance numbers.)

Isler imbues Benny with the appropriate degree of cynicism, seizing every opportunity to inject humor by means of an expression or a gesture. Moreover, Isler is the master of what I would call "the good-natured scowl" (you will see what I mean!).

Each of them sings a few brief solos, and the two of them make a great song-and-dance duet at choice places.

The Tech:

Technical director Barry Jaked presides over a first-rate team with lighting design by Valentina Moya, sound design by Juan Isler, and costumes by Deb Royals and Jennifer Gainey Ijeoma.

A nearly bare stage with moveable set pieces and props morphs into a variety of settings, including the interior of a church, a restaurant, a bar, and a "dump room." The program credits Marie Laster, with "Scenery Design," Meredith Riggan as "Scenic Charge Artist," and Cole Train as assistant. The set change crew is quick, competent and efficient; credited: stage manager Julianna Frasca and ASMs Gabriella Terrero, Sydney Kain, and Courtney Pisano.

Costume changes, by the way, are done on stage in the same half-light as the scenic changes, and they are covered by music that either punctuates the previous scene or introduces the next scene. They never interrupt the flow of the action.

Byron Jennings II stars as Gil in Hymn, (photo by Cari-Grindem Corbett)

Nice Touches:

Memorable Lines:

Hymn at Burning Coal Theatre Company stars Byron Jennings II (left) as Gil and Juan Isler as Benny (photo by Cari-Grindem Corbett)

From the Department of Picky-Picky:

There is a piano in the center of the stage. I kept wondering how it would figure in (as something other than a surface for holding props and costumes).

When Gil mentions "flats" (the British word for "apartment"), it was a bit jarring. Since this production has (rightly, I think) decided not to superimpose British accents on the dialogue, I would suggest this minor alteration in the wording: substitute "apartments" for "flats." (Perhaps, also consider substituting "main street" for "high street.")

The Bottom Line:

This production is well worth seeing -- I would not be surprised to learn that the play had been written for this specific creative team.

Humor, touching moments, song, dance -- it has it all. Be prepared to laugh, to sing along, to clap along, and to clap heartily at the end of each scene. Beyond that, pay close attention to the final scenes -- they contain take-home food for thought.

Lolita Chakrabarti's HYMN (In Person at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 27 and 28 and Feb. 1-4 and 8-11), directed by marcus d. harvey and starring Juan Isler and Byron Jennings II (Burning Coal Theatre Company in the Murphey School Auditorium in Raleigh). PRESENTER:,,,, and PODCASTS: 2024 MAINSTAGE SEASON: VENUE: and DIRECTIONS/PARKING: COVID PRECAUTIONS: HYMN (2020 London Play with Music and 2021 TV Movie):,, and LOLITA CHAKRABARTI (British actress and playwright):,,, and TICKETS: $30 ($5 students 18 and under; $20 college students, teachers, and active-duty military personnel; and $25 seniors 65+), except $20 Thursday Special and $5 Thursdays and Fridays for students 18 and under with ID. Click here to buy tickets. INFORMATION: 919-834-4001 or PLEASE DONATE TO: Burning Coal Theatre CompanyMMM.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights' Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with North Carolina Reading Service. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review.


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