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Local theater shines on any stage in 2010

Jules Becker | 1/4/2011, 7:13 p.m.

The best productions and performances of any given year can be a barometer for the health of local theater. The same goes for the diversity of plays and players. Considering the quality and variety of the finest area work during the last 12 months, 2010 was a good year.

Lydia R. Diamond, already acclaimed for her adaptation of the Toni Morrison novel “The Bluest Eye” established herself as an important Hub playwright with her visceral family drama “Stick Fly,” premiered with real heart by Huntington Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts.

The risk-taking black dramatist pushed the envelope of political correctness by having African American maid Cheryl challenge the facile assumptions of the wealthy Martha’s Vineyard black family at the heart of the play. Kenny Leon, who directed Huntington’s masterful revival of August Wilson’s “Fences” last year, followed suit with “Stick Fly.” Amber Iman’s insinuating Cheryl and Wendell W. Wright’s enigmatic black patriarch Joe LeVay were the standouts in a strong ensemble.

This past year, black actors demonstrated their versatility in multi-cultural as well as gender-bending productions. Premier African American actress Ramona Lisa Alexander captured the majesty and feistiness of vulnerable heroine Josie in Nora Theatre’s fresh revival of the Eugene O’Neill classic “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” and the world-weary wisdom and tenacity of slavery era Grandma in Underground Railway Theatre’s earnest area premiere of another Diamond play “Harriet Jacobs.”

Michelle Dowd brought genuine authority to usually male lord Lucullus in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s fine revival of the rarely staged Shakespeare drama “Timon of Athens.” Trinity Repertory veteran Barbara Meek caught the statesmanship of usually male Arthur ally Pellinore in that company’s World War II blitz-set revival of the musical “Camelot.”

Still other black performers — in large and small stage productions, in lead and supporting parts and in all kinds of roles — distinguished themselves in plays and musicals. Jacqui Parker, one of Boston’s best actresses, combined the heart and heartache of Billie Holiday in the Lyric Stage Company of Boston edition of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.” Cherene Snow brought a similar luminosity to the part of Alberta “Pearl” Johnson in the Merrimack Repertory Theatre premiere of another play with music, namely “Black Pearl Sings!”

Jason Bowen caught the dream-rich nobility of the black South African hero in the Lyric Stage premiere of “Groundswell” and the tragic dimension of the great Moor in the Actors’ Shakespeare Project edition of “Othello.” Johnny Lee Davenport’s heart-wrenching grieving father proved the best performance in the uneven play “Vengeance is the Lord’s” at Huntington Theatre. James Milord brought similar majesty to the indignation of 1962 Birmingham black citizen Pelzie Sullivan  in the Company One premiere of the provocative play “The Good Negro.”

Other strong efforts included Stephanie Umoh in the well-intentioned new Rex Sox musical “Johnny Baseball” from American Repertory Theatre; Chester Gregory as James Brown-like James “Thunder “ Early in a strong tour of the musical “Dreamgirls” at the Colonial Theatre; Lindsey McWhorter in SpeakEasy Stage’s striking area premiere of “In the Next Room;” Kortney Adams in the clever evolutionary love story “From Orchids to Octopi” from Underground Railway; De’Lon Grant in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Lyric Stage and Cheo Bourne in “Honk!” at Wheelock Family Theatre.

Best of Theater 2010

Small Stage

The Adding Machine - SpeakEasy Stage
The Aliens - Company One
Cherry Docs -New Repertory
Enron - Zeitgeist Stage
4:48 Psychosis - Gamm Theatre
Good -Boston Center for American Performance
Groundswell - Lyric Stage Company of Boston
A Moon for the Misbegotten - Nora Theatre
Nicholas Nickleby - Lyric Stage
Tales from Ovid - Whistler in the Dark Theatre

Large Stage

Absurd Person Singular – Trinity Repertory
All My Sons – Huntington Theatre
August - Colonial Theatre
The Blonde,The Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead - Merrimack Repertory
The Blue Flower - American Repertory (through Jan. 9 at the Loeb Drama Center,Cambridge; possible New York run)
Bus Stop - Huntington Theatre
Dreamgirls – Colonial Theatre-A soaring tour in this ode to Motown and 1962-1975 black soul  
Gypsy – North Shore Music Theatre
Into the Woods – Reagle Music Theatre
The Laramie Project:Ten Years Later – ArtsEmerson at Cutler Majestic Theatre
Stick Fly - Huntington Theatre
Sunset Boulevard - Ogunquit Playhouse