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Posts Tagged ‘the black rep’

Torn Asunder
by Nikkole Salter
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
April 25, 2018

Myke Andrews, Brandi Threatt, Alan Knoll, LaShunda Gardner
Photo: The Black Rep

The Black Rep’s latest production is a world premiere production. Torn Asunder tells the story of a married couple separated by slavery, and its title comes from a common biblical phrase often used in marriage vows. This is about more than a marriage being split up, however. This heartbreaking, heartrending, memorable play focuses on a few characters–with excellent production values and a first-rate cast–but it also vividly portrays how much of American society was torn apart by the injustice and brutality of slavery.

The story begins on a Maryland plantation in 1859 and takes place over eleven years in the lives of the characters. Hannah Louise Ballard (LaShunda Gardner), who grew up as a slave on the plantation, is married to Moses (Myke Andrews) in the first scene, as Master James (Alan Knoll, who plays various roles) performs the ceremony emphasizing the fact that slave marriages weren’t considered permanent by the slaveholders. In fact, the very marriage vows ask them to accept this idea. That’s just the beginning of the story. Soon Master James becomes ill and dies, promising “provisions” for  Hannah in his will that give her cause to hope that she and Moses will be able to stay together, but that hope doesn’t last long. Hannah is soon bequeathed to Master James’s daughter and son-in-law and taken to Virginia, along with her baby son, Elijah, but without Moses. Her new “Master” is the ambitious, insecure shopkeeper John Allen (Graham Emmons), who forbids Hannah from contacting Moses. Also joining Hannah in her new situation is Malinda (Brandi Threatt), whose relationship with Allen is complicated, but who ultimately learns what he really thinks of her as she and Hannah are both sold and sent to Georgia. A few years pass, and as Moses makes his way to Canada, never giving up on his quest to find and reunite with Hannah, Hannah and Malinda are working in a cotton field with Henry (Carl Overly, Jr.), who is interested in Hannah although Hannah still holds to the hope of finding Moses. As the war ends and slavery is abolished, Hannah, Malinda, and Henry eventually make their way North, but then things get even more complicated. Basically, this play depicts not only the sheer brutality of slavery, but also the aftermath of this brutality for individuals, couples, families, and society itself.

The cast here is exceptional, with strong performances all around, led by Gardner’s determined Hannah, who has strong chemistry with both Andrews’s earnest, focused Moses and Overly’s devoted, optimistic Henry. Threatt as the conflicted Malinda, Emmons as the deluded unstable Allen, and Knoll in a variety of roles are also impressive, and the casting brings energy and life to Salter’s thoughtful script.  The production values are also truly stunning. with dynamic staging by director Ron Himes, and brilliant and evocative scenic design by Dunsi Dai that makes excellent use of Geordy van Es’s vivid projections. Kathy A. Perkins’s lighting also adds much to the drama of the production, as do Daryl Harris’s detailed costumes.

This is a remarkable new work. Although the show runs a little long and there are elements that could be better explained, Torn Asunder is a challenging, thought-provoking, heartbreaking play, and  The Black Rep’s production is excellent, with first-rate production values and a brilliant cast. I hope this isn’t the only production, though. I hope there will be more performances of this remarkable work in the future.

Carl Overly, Jr., LaShunda Gardner, Brandi Threatt
Photo: The Black Rep

 

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Fences
by August Wilson
Directed by Lorna Littleway
The Black Rep
January 6, 2017

Ron Himes, Richard Agnew
Photo by Joe Clapper
The Black Rep

The latest production at the Black Rep is a well-known modern classic. A Pulitzer Prize winner recently made into an award-winning film, Fences is a poignant, incisive play by August Wilson. With its casting requirements and powerful script, this is a challenging play, and the Black Rep has presented it with poignance, power, and precision.

The story follows a family in Pittsburgh in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, focusing on a character whose life has been profoundly affected by the systemic and societal racism of the times. Troy Maxson (Ron Himes) was once a star baseball player in the Negro Leagues, but after spending a long time in prison for petty offences, missed out on his chance to play in the Major Leagues because of his age. Troy, who now works for a sanitation company, lives with his wife, Rose (Linda Kennedy) and their teenage son, Cory (Brian McKinley), who has shown promise as a football player, although the embittered Troy refuses to let him talk to a college recruiter. The trials and events of Troy’s and Rose’s lives also involve Troy’s friend and co-worker Jim Bono (Robert Alan Mitchell), who questions some of Troy’s personal choices; Troy’s son from a previous relationship, Lyons (Steven Maurice), a musician who lives in the hope of gaining his father’s approval; and Troy’s brother Gabriel (Richard Agnew), who hasn’t been the same since he was injured in the war and who used to live with Troy, and who now wanders the streets during the day seeming to believe himself to be the Angel Gabriel, ready to blow his trumpet to signal the opening of the gates of Heaven.  Through the course of the play, Troy is forced to confront his own past and his disappointment with the way his life has turned out, as well as his goals for the present and the future, and his own thinly veiled resentment for his own son, whose hopes for advancement are viewed as something of a threat.  The play deals with a variety of issues, including personal and family responsibility; the effects of societal racism on individuals, families, and communities; parent-child relationships, and more. It’s a powerful character study as well as a thought-provoking portrait of a time and place in history, with themes that resonate still today.

This is a long, talky play, marked by Wilson’s insightful dialogue and richly-drawn characters, including a deeply flawed central character. Troy is a difficult role, as bitter, manipulative and self-focused as he can be, but there’s also an inherent sympathy in his situation, and it takes a strong actor to convincingly play all the many layers of this character. Himes is simply superb in the role, bringing his strong stage presence to the role and conveying with authenticity all the complexities of this character. He’s well-paired with the truly excellent Kennedy as the determined, longsuffering Rose, whose love for and exasperation with Troy are in full evidence, as is her devotion to her family.  There are also strong performances from Mitchell as Troy’s loyal but increasingly disillusioned (with Troy) friend, Bono; and by Agnew in a standout performance as the unstable, single-minded Gabriel. Maurice as Lyons and McKinley as Cory are also convincing, for the most part, although their stage presence isn’t quite at the same level as the rest of the powerhouse cast. For the most part, this is a strong, cohesive ensemble, supporting the first-rate performances of Himes and Kennedy who are real anchors of this production, thoughtfully and dynamically staged by director Lorna Littleway.

Technically, this show is also impressive, as is usual for the Black Rep. The stage at Washington University’s Edison Theatre has been transformed into the Maxson’s backyard by means of  Jim Burwinkel’s comprehensive, detailed set. There’s also excellent character-specific costume design by Marissa Perry. Joseph W. Clapper’s striking lighting, Kareem Deanes’s clear, effective sound design, and Kate Slovinkski’s props also contribute to the overall dramatic impact of this play.

The Black Rep is known for its remarkable work, including previous productions of August Wilson’s works. This latest production of Fences is yet another example of this company’s commitment to excellence and its position as a showcase for superb acting. It’s a riveting, personal, highly affecting drama, especially highlighting the performances of some of St. Louis’s more celebrated performers. It’s well worth seeing.

Robert Alan Mitchell, Ron Himes, Linda Kennedy
Photo: Joe Clapper, Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Fences at the Edison Theatre until January 21, 2017

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Dot
by Colman Domingo
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
September 9, 2017

Cast of Dot
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep has opened their 41st season with Colman Domingo’s Dot. Centered around the family of a woman with Alzheimer’s, the tone is more comic than one might first expect. With fascinating characters, a well-crafted script and a top-notch cast, this play is at once entertaining and thought-provoking.

The play’s story revolves around an often used theme–a family gathers to celebrate a holiday, and the various personality clashes and unexpected revelations serve to fuel the comedy, and the drama. Here, Dotty (Thomasina Clarke) is excited about Christmas, and getting a real tree to decorate, but her daughter Shelly (Jacqueline Thompson) is feeling increasingly weary since her mother’s memory loss is getting more and more apparent, and Shelly is shouldering most of the responsibility for caring for Dotty herself. Shelly outlines her frustrations to old friend Jackie (Courtney Elaine Brown), who has recently returned to town after several years for her own soon-to-be-disclosed reasons. Also coming to join the family for the holidays is Shelly’s younger brother Donnie (Chauncy Thomas), who is having difficulties in his once-blissful relationship with his health-conscious husband, Adam (Paul Edwards). And then there’s outgoing youngest sister Averie (Heather Beal), who lives in Shelly’s basement, and who Shelly views as irresponsible. As the group gathers, the various conflicts become more obvious, as Dotty’s memory issues become more apparent, and Shelly is concerned that Dotty and her hired caregiver Fidel (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) are planning something drastic.  As Christmas morning approaches, the characters are forced to confront their own issues, in terms of Dotty’s situation as well as their own past relationships and present realities.

It’s a well-rounded script that starts out in something of a sitcom format but takes its time to develop the characters and situations. Director Ron Himes has staged the show with a measured energy, with some brisk physicality as well as times for reflection. The cast is impeccable, led by Clarke in a winning, complex performance as Dotty, an enthusiastic matriarch who strives to maintain her family’s traditions and legacy in the midst of her struggle to remember. There’s also excellent support from Thompson as the increasingly concerned and exasperated Shelly, and by Thomas and Beal as the world-weary Donnie and unpredictable Averie. Brown has some hilarious moments as the occasionally frantic Jackie, who used to date Donnie in high school, as well, and Edwards is also excellent as Donnie’s occasionally controlling husband, Adam. Lawson-Maeske, as the devoted Fidel, an immigrant from Kazakhstan who provides an emotional support for Dotty, is also superb, and the chemistry of the entire ensemble is excellent.

The production values are also first-rate. Dunsi Dai’s set is richly detailed and well-appointed, and Gregory J. Horton’s costumes suit the characters well. There’s also strong lighting by Joseph W. Clapper and clear sound design by Kareem Deanes. There’s also an excellent use of Christmas music to set the mood before and during the show.

This production makes the most of the stage at the Edison Theatre, bringing the script and these memorable characters to life. From its central theme of Dotty’s struggles to various issues that many families deal with–from cultural differences to differing life goals to the desire and need to preserve family history and traditions–this play covers a lot of ground. It’s a fascinating, poignant, and often humorous look at a woman’s relationships with her family and with her own personal history as she strives to maintain some measure of control as she slowly but inevitably loses her memory. It’s a strong start for a new season from the Black Rep.

The Black Rep is presenting Dot at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until September 24, 2017.

 

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Seven Guitars
by August Wilson
Directed by Ed Smith
The Black Rep
March 31, 2017

Reginald Pierre, Kingsley Leggs, Phillip Dixon
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep’s latest production is a compelling drama from one of America’s most celebrated playwrights, August Wilson. An installment in his cycle of plays chronicling the experience of African Americans in each decade of the 20th Century, Seven Guitars is a thoughtful, extremely well characterized play that presents the plight of various characters and their hopes and dreams in 1948 Pittsburgh. The Black Rep’s production is highlighted by thoughtful staging and a top-notch cast.

This is one of those plays that tells us its end at the very beginning. From the start, we know that one of the play’s central characters, blues musician Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (Kingsley Leggs) has died, and various of his friends are gathered in a backyard after his funeral. What it doesn’t tell us right away, is how Floyd died and what events led up to the gathering in the first scene, and that’s the focus of the story.  Most of the play takes place before the initial scene, and we see how Floyd, recently released from prison, tries to re-establish his relationship with girlfriend Vera (Linda Kennedy), and reconnect with fellow musicians Canewell (Phillip Dixon) and Red Carter (Reginald Pierre) and journey to Chicago for a recording session at the record company for which he recorded a previous song that has become a surprise hit. He’s staying with Vera, but Vera’s not so sure she wants Floyd back, since he had previously left her for another woman. Also in the picture are Vera’s neighbors,  Louise (Cathy Simpson) and King Hedley (Ron Himes). Hedley, who makes a living selling homemade chicken sandwiches and eggs from the chickens he raises and is treated by the others as something of an eccentric, is full of dreams, regrets, and strong opinions about how black men are treated and oppressed by the white establishment.  Louise is waiting for the arrival of her niece Ruby (Lakesha Glover) from out of town, and when Ruby finally arrives she carries with her some secrets of her own.

This is a long, complex play with extremely well-drawn characters and unfolding situations that build gradually and, eventually, explosively. The direction is deliberate and the cast is ideally chosen, led by Leggs in a compelling performance as the ambitious Floyd. He’s also got a great voice and performs well on the guitar during the show’s musical moments. Himes is also extremely strong as the determined, complex Hedley, as is Kennedy as the conflicted Vera. The whole cast is strong, and the musical performances featuring Leggs, Pierre, and Dixon are memorable as well. It’s a cohesive cast, bringing a lot of energy and weight to Wilson’s excellent script.

The technical aspects of the production are well-presented in Tim Case’s detailed set and Michael Alan Stein’s excellent period-specific costumes. Jim Burwinkel’s lighting adds a lot to the mood of the production, as does Maril Whitehead’s sound, particularly in the musical moments of the show.

Seven Guitars is a long play, but Wilson’s superb dialogue and story pacing, along with the excellent performances of the cast, makes every minute count. This is a gripping story that provides a great deal to think about in terms of how things used to be, as well as how they still are a lot of the time. It’s a memorable production from  the Black Rep.

Lakesha Glover, Kingsley Leggs
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Seven Guitars at Harris-Stowe University’s Emerson Performance Center until April 23, 2017.

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Miss Julie, Clarissa and John
By Mark Clayton Southers
Directed by Andrea Frye
The Black Rep
September 10, 2016

Alicia Reve' Like, Laurie McConnell Photo by Philip Hamer The Black Rep

Alicia Reve’ Like, Laurie McConnell
Photo by Philip Hamer
The Black Rep

Miss Julie, Clarissa and John is the opener for the newest season at the Black Rep. It’s playwright Mark Clayton Southers’s re-imagining of August Strindberg’s classic play Miss Julie, changing the setting to the Southern United States during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. As portrayed in this intense, extremely well-cast production at the Black Rep, tensions are high between servants at a plantation and the owner’s daughter. It’s a sharp, richly characterized portrayal of racial and class tensions as well as personal dynamics between the characters.

On a large Virginia plantation in the 1880s, Clarissa (Alicia Reve’ Like) is a cook for the plantation’s owner. She lives with her fiance’, fellow servant and former slave John (Eric J. Conners). They have an uneasy relationship with the owner’s daughter, Miss Julie (Laurie McConnell), who has lived an entitled existence but struggles to live up to the expectations of her family and society. That uneasiness doesn’t stop her from exerting her considerable influence on John, with whom she engages in a manipulative flirtation. In the midst of this stands Clarissa, who is haunted by her own traumatic upbringing and the disappearance of her beloved mother, who had been a slave at the plantation as well. The mystery of what happened to Clarissa’s mother and the connection between this situation and Miss Julie herself is a key element of the plot, leading to much of the intense drama that builds gradually throughout the play and then explodes in Act 2.

The casting here is key, and all three players are excellent. Like, as Clarissa, is a particular standout as she portrays all the aspects of the character’s emotional journey with raw and intense honesty. Her search for answers regarding her mother, and her wariness of Miss Julie and real but reserved affection for John are all clearly on display here in Like’s richly complex performance. McConnell, as Miss Julie, tackles the difficult role with a great deal of depth, as well. As someone who has learned to exploit her position to get ahead, she could easily be a cardboard villain, but although she’s not particularly sympathetic most of the time, McConnell does an excellent job of conveying Miss Julie’s own complicated history and struggle with emotions of jealousy and the conflicting issues of powerlessness and need to exert power over both Clarissa and John in different ways. As John, Conners ably portrays his attachment and loyalty to Clarissa as well as his combined suspicion of and fascination with Miss Julie. The interactions between all three performers are intensely charged.

The time, place, and tone are well realized in Jim Burwinkel’s authentically detailed set and Jennifer (J. C.) Krajicek’s meticulously detailed costumes. The lighting, designed by Kathy Perkins, effectively augments the drama as well. The Edison Theatre can be a difficult venue in terms of sound, but this production is very clear and audible, and the staging is crisp and energetic.

There are a lot of issues in this play, some overarching and most highly personal. With all three characters having their own particular struggles, as well as the struggle to live in the highly restrictive and oppressive society in which they were born, Miss Julie, Clarissa and John is a highly emotional, at times disturbingly intense production that is sure to make audiences think. It’s an excellent showcase for this superb cast, and a memorable start to what promises to be an exciting season at the Black Rep.

Eric J Conners, Alicia Reve' Like Photo by Phillip Hamer The Black Rep

Eric J Conners, Alicia Reve’ Like
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Miss Julie, Clarissa and John at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until September 25, 2016.

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Twisted Melodies
by Kelvin Roston, Jr.
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
April 23, 2016

Kelvin Roston, Jr. Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Kelvin Roston, Jr.
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

A biographical one-person show, written by the show’s star, is an ideal way for a talented writer and performer to showcase his talents while also paying tribute to a notable person. The latest production from the Black Rep, Twisted Melodies, is an excellent example of this kind of show. Featuring the remarkable performance of writer/star Kelvin Roston, Jr., the play tells the story of legendary R&B singer Donny Hathaway by taking the audience on an immersive trip into Hathaway’s life and mind.

The play introduces the audience to Hathaway (Roston) on a pivotal day in his life in 1979. After a troubling recording session, he’s back in his room at the Essex House Hotel in New York. Plagued by hallucinations attributed to paranoid schizophrenia, Hathaway recounts the story of his life and music, engaging the audience as if we are a benevolent hallucination, unlike the more hostile voices and visions that haunt him. He tells the story of his childhood in St. Louis and his upbringing in the home of his strict but loving and devout grandmother, who insisted that Hathaway spend hours practicing piano and developing his musical gifts. The story continues into Hathaway’s adolescence and young adulthood, where he attended Howard University in Washington, DC and eventually began his musical career. He tells of his marriage, his musical collaborations with Roberta Flack and others, and his experience with mental illness that grew to dominate his adult life. The play is structured so that we don’t just hear the story, though. We are put into Hathaway’s head, hearing what he hears and seeing what he sees, with the troubling, confusing and terrifying sounds and sights realized by means of Rick Sims’s superb sound design, Sean Savoie’s stunning lighting, and Mark Wilson’s vividly realized projections.  All the while, Hathaway’s music is used to tell his story, expertly played and sung by Roston.

Roston didn’t just write this show–he is the show. The first-rate technical aspects of this play, including the excellent set by Jim Burwinkel, serve as the backdrop for this first-rate performance. The amiable, personable Roston presents a Donny Hathaway whose talent is clearly at the forefront, as are his struggles. His battle with paranoid schizophrenia and his reluctance to take the drugs to treat it–since their side effects can be extreme–is portrayed with clarity and intensity. Roston’s musicality is also on clear display, with his smooth, soulful voice and impressive keyboard skills presenting Hathaway’s music remarkably. He does a great job of sounding like Hathaway as well, with strong performances of songs such as “The Ghetto”, “She Is My Lady” “Giving Up”, “A Song For You”, and perhaps most impressively, singing both parts of his duet with Flack, “The Closer I Get to You”. Hathaway’s joy in his music is made clear, as is his fear, desperation, and search for hope. As Hathaway’s journey takes him back and forth from hope to despair, Roston powerfully portrays every aspect of that journey.

Twisted Melodies is a tour-de-force performance and a superbly crafted theatrical piece, with lighting that contributes to Hathaway’s feelings of isolation and fear, inventive use of projections, and excellent sound that incorporates recorded music that blends seamlessly with Roston’s live performance. It’s a compelling and sometimes disturbing look into the mind of a brilliant but troubled musician, and it’s not to be missed.

Kelvin Roston, Jr. Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Kelvin Roston, Jr.
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Twisted Melodies at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until May 1, 2016.

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Once On This Island
Book and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Music by Stephen Flaherty
Directed by Ron Himes

Choreographed by Keith Tyrone Williams
The Black Rep
April 24, 2015

The Cast of Once on This Island Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

The Cast of Once on This Island
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is closing out their 2014-2015 season with Ahrens and Flaherty’s one-act musical Once On This Island.  While the show itself makes an effort at being inspirational, I find its message to be somewhat problematic. Still, with its vibrant staging, fine performances and dynamic choreography, this is a production that has a lot to offer.

When the show opens, the cast is gathered around to tell a story. A young girl (Daryiah Ja’Nnay Ford) is the focus, as the adults around her begin to tell a much-repeated tale, which is then acted out as the various villagers take the roles in the story. They tell of young Ti Moune (Ford), who as a child is carried away by a storm and left in a tree in a peasant village on a tropical island. There she is found by Mama Euralie (Linda Kennedy) and TonTon Julian (Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr.), an older couple who raise the child as their own. Watched over by her adopted parents and the villagers, Ti Moune grows into a young woman (Ashley Ware Jenkins) who is eager to find her life’s purpose. She prays to the local gods Erzulie (Scheronda Gregory), Agwe (Billy Flood), Asaka (Jennifer Kelley) for help, and eventually finds her mission. This comes in the form of Daniel (Timmy Howard), the son of a wealthy hotel-owning family from the other side of the island, despite the sharp institutionalized divide between Daniel’s people, the grandes hommes (who are descended from French colonists), and Ti Moune’s people, who live as peasants separated from the benefits that the upper class grandes hommes share. When Daniel’s car crashes near Ti Moune’s village, Ti Moune takes it upon herself to care for him despite the objections and fears of her fellow villagers, even making a deal with the conniving death god Papa Ge (J. Samuel Davis) in order to keep Daniel safe. These events lead to a long-avoided confrontation between the peasants and the grandes hommes, with the results turning out not exactly as one might expect.

Without giving too much away, I need to say that I have serious issues with the message of this play, or at least one of its messages. The idea of needing something (or someone) to unite the divided people and confront the systemic injustice is good and important, but I had some problems with the portrayal of Ti Moune as a young woman who basically makes a man her cause, and particularly a man who doesn’t seem to really care that much about her. As dedicated as Ti Moune is to Daniel, I never got the idea that Daniel thinks of her as anything more than a curiosity. Although the show tries to portray a good outcome to all this in the finale (“Why We Tell the Story”), I’m not entirely sure I buy it.

There is some excellent music here, along with some very strong ensemble dancing choreographed by Keith Tyrone Williams, and some wonderful lead performances. Jenkins, especially, is a marvel, with incredible stage presence and a striking air of utmost determination. She’s also a fantastic dancer and a strong singer. Kennedy and McNichols as Ti Moune’s adoptive parents are also memorable and immensely likable. The island gods and supernatural figures are given strong portrayals as well, with Davis’s scheming Papa Ge a particular standout. Young Ford as Little Ti Moune also gives a vibrant performance. There are also some memorable songs and production numbers such as Jenkins’s “Waiting For Life”, Kelley’s “Mama Will Provide”, Gregory’s “The Human Heart” and the energetic finale.

Technically, this production is a visual wonder, although the sound quality leaves something to be desired. The band set-up at Washington University’s Edison Theatre, with the small band off to one side of the stage, makes it very easy for the music to drown out the singers on stage. Still, Tim Case’s atmospheric set, Luqman Salim’s colorful and detailed costumes, and Sean Savoie’s striking lighting all lend an evocative air to the production, adding to the overall fairy-tale like mood of the show.

I had never seen Once On This Island before, and as a show, I’m still not sure what I think of it. Overall, I would call this an excellent effort and a worthwhile production. Although I do have some issues with one of the show’s messages, the Black Rep’s fine cast and production values make this a memorable event.

The Cast of Once on This Island Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

The Cast of Once on This Island
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

The Black Rep’s production of Once On This Island is on stage at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until May 3rd, 2015.

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