“ToasT,” a new play by the acclaimed spoken-word artist and Tony Award-winning writer Lemon Andersen and directed by Elise Thoron, will be given a staged reading at Guild Hall tonight at 8. A Public Theater commission first presented at the Public’s Under the Radar festival, “ToasT” weaves characters from black oral narratives into a drama about a group of inmates at Attica during the 1971 riots at the prison.
Toasts, part of the African American oral tradition, are narratives of often urban and always heroic events, traditionally performed in pool halls, bars, and prisons. When Lemon, as Mr. Anderson is commonly known, was invited to be on Russell Simmons’s Def Poetry Jam, it was a challenge.
“I was competing against poets who slammed,” he said. “I was a theater poet, and I had no idea what slam culture was. But I had memorized a couple of my favorite poems, and I had a Shine poem by Etheridge Knight. When I got up and did ‘Shine,’ they were laughing, it’s a really funny poem. It’s in the play now.”
It came as a surprise to him when a friend said her father used to read her the poem — actually titled “Dark Prophecy: I Sing of Shine,” about a black stoker aboard the Titanic who was “hip enough to flee the fucking ship and let the white folks drown” — when she was a child. “I started looking into the history of the poem and discovered Dolomite, Stackolee, Hobo Bang, and that there were these character-driven poems called toasts. That was it for me. I fell in love with that tradition.”
While in prison in the early 1990s, Mr. Anderson learned about the Attica uprising from a fellow inmate who had been there. “And it hit me. What if I stuck Dolomite in Attica during the inmate revolt?” The story grew from there, with Dolomite — “the baddest badass out of San Antone” — given the name of his arch rival, Willie Green, and other folklore heroes such as Jesse James, Hobo Ben, Stackolee, Voodoo Queen, Shine the Stoker, and Hard Rock as fellow prisoners doing hard time as word about the coming riot spread.
Willie Green is played by Keith David, a veteran stage, screen, and television actor whose credits include Oliver Stone’s “Platoon,” Clint Eastwood’s “Bird,” and Paul Haggis’s Academy Award-winning “Crash.”
“Lemon and I have a mutual agent, and he spoke to her about my reading the play,” Mr. David said. “I absolutely loved it and wanted to be involved with it.” As the play developed, each of the actors had input. “Fortunately we had a playwright who was open to suggestion — not everyone is. ‘ToasT’ is a wonderful piece of work.” Originally from Harlem, Mr. David was familiar with the black narrative tradition.
In addition to Mr. David, the cast includes André De Shields, Tony Plana, Hill Harper, Armando Riesco, Kevin Mambo, Colman Domingo, and Peter McRobbie. Prime orchestra tickets are $50, $48 for members. Orchestra and balcony seats are priced at $30 and $28.
Also at Guild Hall
Guild Hall will present “Edward Villella: Live and in Person,” a 90-minute dance history program spanning his legendary career, Saturday morning at 11. Recognized as one of the world’s best male dancers, Mr. Villella has just completed a successful 25-year residency as founder and artistic director of the Miami City Ballet.
The program will utilize video clips from his many dancing roles, including performances with George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Gene Kelly. His daughter Crista will moderate the program. Prime orchestra seats are $50 and include a 10 a.m. continental brunch reception with Mr. Villella. Orchestra and balcony tickets are $35, $33 for members.
Christine Ebersole, a two-time Tony Award-winner best known for her performance in the dual roles of Edith Bouvier and Edie Beale — a k a Big and Little Edie — in the Broadway musical “Grey Gardens,” will perform her cabaret show onstage at Guild Hall Sunday at 7:30 p.m.
The versatile Ms. Ebersole has appeared on Broadway in “42nd Street,” “Steel Magnolias,” “Dinner at Eight,” and “Blithe Spirit.” Her film credits include “Amadeus,” “Tootsie,” and “Richie Rich,” and she has appeared on television in everything from “Saturday Night Live” to a plethora of dramas and sitcoms. Prime orchestra seats are $100, regular orchestra $65, $63 for members, and balcony seats go for $55 and $53.
“Stirring the Pot: Conversations with Culinary Celebrities” will feature Martha Stewart, founder of Martha Stewart Omnimedia, television host, and writer, on Sunday morning at 11. Ms. Stewart will be interviewed by Florence Fabricant, a cookbook author and food columnist for The New York Times. Tickets are $15, $13 for members.
Arlene Slavin, who is exhibiting translucent colored sculptures in Guild Hall’s garden and paintings that reflect her obsession with color, light, and shadow in the Wasserstein Family Gallery, will give a gallery talk, free with museum admission, on Sunday at 3 p.m.