The Bipeds That must have been some party the night before. At the start of 54 Strange Words, everybody’s coming to at about the same time, slowly rising up or rolling over on the floor of some dilapidated dustbowl shack. Composer Curtis Eller staggers to his feet in a blood-spattered undershirt and lifts his banjo off choreographer Stacy Wolfson’s back before plaintively asking the musical question, “Have mercy, what has happened here?” During the rest of the hour-long work, the cocreators and dancers Jessi Knight and William Commander probed rough recriminations and imbalanced relationships in sections including the gently nihilistic waltz “A Ragged Sayonara.” But Dana Marks stopped the show, exploring the monstrous feminine in designer Graham Wolfson’s fantastical costume of fur, exposed rib bones, and stilts. After mating with an upright bass, Marks’s rough beast internalized and then gave second birth to Wolfson’s character, scored by the sometimes aghast accompaniment of bassist Joseph Dejarnette, drummer William Dawson and guitarist Jack Fleishman. The stuff of dreams—and nightmares—indeed. —Byron Woods

Kane Smego It’s saddening, if no surprise, to recognize that people of color have had to lead the charge against white supremacy, as even the best-intentioned among us who are not threatened by it can so easily slip into its comfortable cocoon. But in Temples of Lung and Air, his solo show at PlayMakers, Kane Smego—Triangle expat, Sacrificial Poets cofounder, and National Poetry Slam finalist—came as close as a white person can feasibly come to using hip-hop to tell his story while also kneeling respectfully before the form and honoring it as something that, no matter how much he gives it and how much it gives him, will never truly belong to him. Smego’s storytelling charm and verbal pyrotechnics drew in a largely white PlayMakers audience and then fed them some truly real, non-self-exculpatory talk about white privilege and endemic racism. It was one of the most honest, searching shows we saw this year, and it never tried to paper over the problematic qualities of its creator’s humble, humane, heartfelt relationship to hip-hop. We need more white people talking about white privilege not as some free-floating force around them, but as a medium they exist within and can’t help but propagate without constant vigilance. Smego provided a sterling example with a generous spirit and dazzling musicality. —Brian Howe

The Normal Heart In one of the most gripping scenes from Larry Kramer’s furious memoir of the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, an activist tormented by despair and anger hits the wall while desperate phone calls pour into the New York crisis center set up to respond to the epidemic. “They are going to persecute us! … Test our blood to see if we’re pure! Lock us up! Stone us in the streets,” a wild-eyed Michael Babbitt yelled at Burning Coal in the role of health writer Mickey Marcus, just before lunging full-force at actor Marc Geller, playing Kramer stand-in Ned Weeks. Shaken, Ned cursed the cognitive dissonance of being at ground zero of a medical disaster that authorities and the media were still downplaying a year and a half after the CDC declared it an epidemic. Director Emily Ranii built the strongest ensemble of any regional show this year, with outstanding performances from the likes of suave Preston Campbell, steely Julie Oliver, conflicted Byron Jennings II, and carbonated newcomer Cody Hill. —Byron Woods

In the Heights Lin-Manuel Miranda’s name has been buzzing since Hamilton took the world by storm, but seven years earlier, he wrote and starred in In The Heights. Taking place in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, the musical tells a story of a Dominican bodega owner who contemplates the meaning of home and belonging as he witnesses his rapidly changing working-class community of Latinx and Black residents respond to gentrification. Quite a bit has changed in this country since the debut of In the Heights in 2008, when hope was a springboard into the Obama era. A decade later, the relevancy of the themes was evident at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium in October. The local cast and crew captured the essence of a New York barrio through a vibrant and colorful set, lively choreography, and blaring rap and salsa music, encouraging the audience to dance in their seats. One of the best scenes and songs of the production is “Carnaval Del Barrio,” a celebratory ode to Latinx pride and culture. It is poignant to see a stage full of different shades of Latinx identities raising their flags proudly in unison, especially in today’s tense climate of deportations and barriers to American citizenship for the people the musical celebrates. NC Theatre made a timely decision in bringing the show back to the stage at a time when hope felt distant (oh, and Hamilton was about to come to DPAC). Miranda’s lyrical story is a heartwarming reminder about resilience against significant change and the power of a community’s love. —Khayla Deans

Kristin Clotfelter Verses, Kristin Clotfelter’s pithy, poignant solo in Tobacco Road’s annual showcase, matched the spareness of Really Craft When You, by celebrated NYC-based composer, violinist, and singer Caroline Shaw, who was born in North Carolina. Clotfelter’s character experienced a moving day of reckoning as she struggled to fit the family history and rural folkways represented in the interviews with Southern quilters woven through Shaw’s music into three cardboard U-Haul boxes of different sizes. With balletic precision, she seemed to beckon individual memories from the space around her, impressing them on her form and then crawling through the containers, before ultimately realizing how little of our past is truly transferable. —Byron Woods

Monét Noelle Marshall The pointed questions Marshall had for local audiences and arts presenters took a year and a broad-reaching trilogy of immersive multimedia performance installations to ask. In Buy My Soul and Call It Art, unsavory art auctions examined the complicity of consumers in the distortion and commodification of the lives of African-American artists through the social structures that produce and present art and popular entertainment. In Buy My Body and Call It a Ticket, a dark carnival with an uncanny ringmaster deconstructed the cultural stigmatizing of our bodies, including weight, hair type, skin color, age, and gender. Though a winter storm in December interfered with much of the run of the concluding piece, Buy My Art and Call It Holy, its closing day tied a loop of gratitude and community in a self-produced trilogy that created an authentic space for the sacredness of African-American labor, experiences, and art where one was sorely needed. —Byron Woods

Mike Wiley As hard as it can be for local playwrights to get attention, Mike Wiley’s springtime achievement was all the more remarkable: landing two world premieres in back-to-back mainstage shows at prominent area venues. In April, Wiley returned to PlayMakers with Leaving Eden, an unsettling new music-theater work with composer Laurelyn Dossett, which examined the cyclic nature of economic exploitation and racial violence in a backwater Eastern North Carolina town. Actor Tangela Large’s uncanny guide, Selah, ferried us between a shocking episode of ethnic cleansing in 1933 and a present-day analog in Jeffrey Blair Cornell’s tinhorn tea-party candidate proposing “countywide immigration reform” targeted at underpaid Latinx pork-plant workers. Three weeks later, director Joseph Megel staged Wiley’s full-ensemble adaptation of Blood Done Sign My Name, based on local historian Timothy Tyson’s chronicle of a 1970 racial murder in Oxford. The evocative set and atmospheric lights and sound design took us to another place and time, as a strong ensemble including Mark Phialas, Juan Isler, and Juanda Holley unleashed the tale of a Methodist minister’s struggle to heal a town split by racial violence, in a way Wiley’s earlier solo version never could. —Byron Woods

Camille A. Brown Camille A. Brown dances a multitude of stories. The choreographer, whose ongoing trilogy of Duke Performances shows this season began with ink in November, is a natural griot, using the rhythmic movements of her feet and the poetic sway of her body to write a narrative of Black identity. Ink is a visceral performance of love, resilience, and liberation, packed with history, cultural cues, vernacular, and stories from social dances in the African diaspora. As Brown explained in the show’s program notes, “It’s about using the power of the past and present to propel us into the future.” This thread is evident in Brown’s ability to preserve and honor dances from previous generations while connecting them to those of younger generations. While traveling the world to teach and perform on prestigious stages, Brown always remains connected to the communities that she visits through workshops and her Every Body Move initiative, in which everyone is encouraged to freely move and dance as they see fit. As Brown continues her residency at Duke in 2019, she will continue to curate cultural and creative classes for Durham residents. Her company’s next performance, BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play, is coming at the start of February. —Khayla Deans

The Banquet This area had endured low-stakes dinner theater in the past, but we’d never seen the high-concept fusion of theater and fine dining found in Snap Pea Catering’s audacious August production of Macbeth. Director Akiva Fox trimmed the text and marshaled a phalanx of first-rank talent, with an insidious Phillip Bernard Smith in the title role and a chilly Rebecca Bossen McHugh as his lady. Innovative chef Jacob Boehm made the food itself a character as the tale—and the meal—unfolded in The Fruit’s various rooms. A dazzling opening course on golden platters accompanied the feast Macbeth served King Duncan. Artisan cocktails and fruit accompanied a transition-of-power press conference. Diners were forced to get their hands as dirty as the murderous monarch’s during the banquet after Banquo’s untimely demise, when a visceral course of uncarved pork and smoked Spanish mackerel was served on butcher’s paper with stainless steel cleavers—but no knives, forks, or plates. Encore! —Byron Woods

Curve of Departure Manbites Dog Theater’s lamentable closing in May left a community of artists without a venue or a company to create for. But instead of disbanding, Akiva Fox, Lakeisha Coffey, and a constellation of twenty-odd directors, designers, actors, and technicians resolved to produce challenging, contemporary, socially conscious works as Bulldog Ensemble Theater. At the Fruit in September, after reaching an agreement to teach acting classes at Durham Arts Council, the group debuted with one of the year’s most moving and authentic productions. Rachel Bonds’s family drama explores the ties that bind and the forces that threaten a modern-day multi-racial family, including both the ex-wife and the aging father of Cyrus, a man who’d abandoned them both, along with his own son. Under Thaddaeus Edwards’s direction, Phyllis Morrison’s bedrock performance as Linda, a loving, no-nonsense African-American mom, and veteran actor John Murphy as Rudy, a patriarch whose rough poetic streak is threatened by dementia, provided the show’s foundation. With Marcus Zollicoffer’s nuanced work as Linda’s son and Luar Mercado Lopez’s impassioned take on his lover, a quartet of characters explored the ethical consequences of commitment. —Byron Woods