Faces to Watch 2014: Theater | Taraji P. Henson, Ayad Akhtar, Annette Bening

Los Angeles Times Theater Critic

The Times asked its reporters and critics to highlight figures in entertainment and the arts who will be making news in 2014. Here’s who they picked:

Taraji P. Henson | Actress

She may not be a household name, but Taraji P. Henson has notched quite a few milestones in her young career.

Nominated for both an Oscar (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) and an Emmy (Lifetime’s “Taken From Me”), Henson has garnered attention for her portrayal of detective Joss Carter on the CBS crime drama “Person of Interest.” Not only has she held her own in a film starring Brad Pitt but she even has a blockbuster on her acting resume: “Think Like a Man,” which did so well during its opening weekend that it spawned an upcoming sequel.


All of which is to say she’s ready for her theatrical close-up. Henson stars in the world premiere of New-York-Times-reporter-turned-playwright Bernard Weinraub’s “Above the Fold,” which opens at the Pasadena Playhouse on Feb. 2.

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Henson plays an enterprising African American New York journalist called on to investigate a racially sensitive story at a Southern university. Professional ethics are challenged by the new pressures of digital journalism and the old pressures of objectivity. No doubt that familiar character flaw that Macbeth called “vaulting ambition” will come into play as well.

A topical tale (recalling the 2006 Duke lacrosse case), “Above the Fold” showcases a talent on the verge of making headlines.

Ayad Akhtar | Writer

“At first I thought it was a crank call,” Ayad Akhtar told the British newspaper the Telegraph about the announcement that his play “Disgraced” won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

This isn’t false modesty. Although “Disgraced” was well received when it was produced by Lincoln Center Theatre after a successful world premiere at Chicago’s American Theater Company, Akhtar, a 43-year-old New York-born writer of Pakistani heritage, hadn’t exactly established himself as a force to be reckoned with in the American theater.

A novelist, screenwriter and occasional actor, Akhtar (who co-wrote and appeared in the film “The War Within”) hurtled to the front ranks of American playwriting with this drama that practically exploded during a dinner party scene when the subject of Islam is introduced among a group of successful New York strivers.


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His latest play, “The Who & the What,” has its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in February. It too explores the tinderbox of religion, this time by exploring the conflict that spirals out of control within a conservative Muslim family in Atlanta when an independent-minded daughter writes a book on women and Islam that offends her more traditional father and sister.

Akhtar’s approach? Ferocious comedy. Add bravery to the list of qualities of a writer we’ll soon become better acquainted with.

Annette Bening and Ruth Draper | Actresses


Annette Bening is a face accustomed to being watched, but this year she’ll be lending her famous visage (and veteran theatrical craft) to the work of a solo performer who ought to be better known given the scale of her influence: Ruth Draper.

Bening is performing a bill of Draper monologues at the Geffen Playhouse beginning in April. Teaming with telling detail and shot through with satire, these richly dramatic character sketches have a novelistic amplitude.

Perhaps that’s the reason Henry James was so taken with the young Ruth Draper, whom he encouraged with words of Jamesian enchantment: “You have woven yourself a magic carpet — stand on it!”

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Draper was equally heralded by actors. John Gielgud considered her, along with Martha Graham, to be “the greatest individual performer that America has ever given us.” Uta Hagen said each of her characterizations was like “a Rembrandt on stage.” And Lily Tomlin confided that when she discovered Draper’s recordings she had found “a standard,” “something to aspire to.”

Theater critic Kenneth Tynan may have said it best, however, when he wrote in a 1952 review that Draper “has all but ruined the pleasures of normal play-going, since her large supporting cast, which exists only at her mind’s fingertips, is so much more satisfactory than any which makes the vulgar mistake of being visible.”

Taking inspiration from Draper’s art, Bening, a singular yet slyly flexible performer, gets the opportunity to demonstrate just how multifarious she can be.