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Posts Tagged ‘the black rep’

Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope
Music and Lyrics by Micki Grant
Conceived by Vinnette Caroll
Original Production Music Direction and Arrangements by Danny Holgate
Directed by Ron Himes

Choreographed by Kirven Douthit-Boyd
The Black Rep
September 7, 2019

Cast of Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope
Photo: The Black Rep

The Black Rep is beginning their new season with another memorable musical production. Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope is a revue that ran on Broadway in the early 1970s, and this production presents it as both of its time and timeless. With a strong cast, great vocals, and remarkable dancing, this is a show that both entertains and challenges.

As I’ve written before, I’m not usually particularly keen on revues, since most of them come across more as staged concerts designed to showcase hit songs rather than fully conceived theatrical experiences.. Fortunately, Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope isn’t a usual revue. It’s not a “jukebox” show, for one thing, with an entirely original score by Micki Grant, including some especially memorable melodies. It also as a cohesive theme, so even without much dialogue it tells a convincing story–or rather, several convincing stories. Focusing on various aspects of the African-American experience, and particularly life in the city, this show is remarkable for its specificity as well as its overall humanity, as well as its variety of musical styles, from rock, pop and jazz to blues, soul, gospel and more. The show, which opened on Broadway in 1972, addresses themes that were particular for its day but also are especially timeless. There are songs about life in various neighborhoods, as well as about dance, music, relationships, church, and resisting oppression, and overall about the experience of life with trials and tribulations, but ultimately with a sense of determination and hope for progress. Although most of the cultural references are from the early 70s, there have been occasional modern references added. The musical arrangements reflect the 70s origins of the piece, but are also accessible for today’s audiences, and the focus on storytelling through song and dance is especially effective in the hands of this excellent cast–Drummond “Drum” Crenshaw, Robert Crenshaw, Antonio Douthit-Boyd, Sieglinda Fox, Herman Gordon, Amber Rose, Camille “Cee” Sharp, Denise Thimes, Keith Tyrone, Alison Brandon-Watkins, and Tyler White.

What stands out about this piece for me is, of course, the great cast, but also the sheer sense of musicality about it, in singing and dancing, in the accompaniment provided by the first-rate band led by the Black Rep’s veteran musical director, Charles Creath and through the vibrant choreography of Kirven Douthit-Boyd. The featured dancers (Antonio Douthit-Boyd, Brandon-Watkins, Robert Crenshaw, Tyrone, and White) are especially strong, from poignant and evocative ballet, to energetic tap, and more. Although the whole cast is strong, Thimes, White, and Fox have particularly outstanding vocal moments.

The atmosphere and emotion is maintained and augmented in the technical aspects of the show, as well, from  Margery and Peter Spack’s evocative unit set, to the stunning use of projections throughout the various performances, to Joe Clapper’s atmospheric lighting and Andre Harrington’s costumes that reflect a 70s influence, like the show itself. This is a revue, but with memorable original music and a unified theme and message. It’s a stirring, effective work that showcases the excellent theatrical and musical tradition of the Black Rep.

The Black Rep is presenting Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until September 22, 2019

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Nina Simone: Four Women
by Christina Ham
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
May 25, 2019

Denise Thimes, Leah Stewart, Camille Sharp, Alex Jay
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is closing out its 42nd season with a powerful musical document, Nina Simone: Four Women, showcasing the life and music of the legendary jazz singer and civil rights activist, compared and contrasted with other black women set amidst the race-based violence in 1960s Alabama, the show highlights events and issues in a historical context as well as pointing out their universal importance. It’s also a remarkable showcase for some truly stellar performances and production values.

The time is September, 1963. The place, the ruins of the 16th Street Baptist Church following the bombings that killed four young black girls. The play opens with a recital by the renowned singer Nina Simone (Leah Stewart), which is interrupted by a jarring explosion. Then, we see Simone in the ruins of the church, rehearsing at the piano and working on a new song, her first protest song “Mississippi Goddam’. Amid the violence outside (as police turn water hoses on protesters and black passersby), Simone is introduced to three women from different walks of life. First there is Sarah (Denise Thimes), who works as a maid for a white family and is referred to in the program as “The Strongest Black Woman in the World”. Eventually, they are joined by young activist Sephronia (Alex Jay), who the program describes as “The Mulatto That Lives Between Two Worlds”, and another young woman identified as Sweet Thing (Camille Sharp), described as “The Sweetest Hips Money Can Buy”, and who has an adversarial connection with Sephronia that is revealed in more detail as the story plays out. The story is told in conversations, and in memorable music mostly in the jazz and gospel genres, including “God Be With You ‘Til We Meet Again”, “His Eye Is On the Sparrow”, “To Be Young Gifted and Black”, the aforementioned “Mississippi Goddam”, and the memorable closing number “Four Women” in which the four main characters each get a chance to shine. It’s essentially a character study and an examination of the impact of systemic racism on people–and particularly women–who all experience the impact of racism even as they themselves differ in terms of class, background, education, philosophies of protest, and attitudes toward one another. Also, while the four adult main characters are the focus, the presence of the young girls who were killed in the bombings is constantly referenced, emphasizing the great tragedy of the bombings and the desire–and need–for change.

The performances here are nothing short of stellar, with rich portrayals and powerhouse voices all around. The contrasting personalities are portrayed with profound energy and strong ensemble chemistry, as these women tell their stories and get to know one another. It’s difficult to single out one standout, as all four are equally excellent, with strong acting and even stronger singing from Stewart as the determined Simone, Thimes as the world-weary Sarah, Jay as the determined Sephronia, and Sharp as the brash, confrontational Sweet Thing. This is a tour-de-force from all four performers, with standout musical performances individually as well as impressive harmonies on the group numbers.

The production values are always excellent at the Black Rep, but they especially impress here, with a remarkably detailed and evocative set by Tim Jones that suggest the time and place with a striking credibility. There are also excellent period costumes by Nikki Glaros, strong choreography by Heather Beal, and superb musical direction by Charles Creath. As great as everything is technically, special note needs to go to the lighting and sound in this production, as lighting designer Sean Savoie and sound designer Justin Schmitz especially evoke time, place, and mood and contribute to the profoundly affecting atmosphere of the production, and its context.

Nina Simone: Four Women is, simply speaking, a must-see, and a must-hear. Conveying its profound message through character and song, it sheds light on an important period in history, as well as a legendary musical figure and an always important message of agency and rising against oppression. It’s a truly remarkable production from the Black Rep.

Leah Stewart, Denise Himes
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Nina Simone: Four Women at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until June 2, 2019

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Milk Like Sugar
by Kirsten Greenidge
Directed by Nicole Brewer
The Black Rep
February 15, 2019

The Black Rep’s reputation for insightful, thought-provoking theatre continues this month with their latest production, Kirsten Greenidge’s Milk Like Sugar. A challenging piece centering on a group of black teenagers in what could be essentially any state in America, this play shines light on the legacy of systemic racism and the challenges and roadblocks that exist for African-American youth in today’s society. It’s not a long play, but it has a lot to say.

Running at approximately 90 minutes with no intermission, Milk Like Sugar takes the audience into the world of Annie (Brandi Threatts) and her friends as Annie prepares to celebrate her 16th birthday. The program lists the time frame as 2004/2005, and the place as “any urban city”, and the Director’s Note in the program highlights the themes of the play and the ubiquity of the situations presented here. Annie and her two best friends, Talisha or “T” (Tyler White) and Margie (Camille Sharp) wait in a tattoo parlor as the play begins, trying to decide on a tattoo for Annie’s birthday and a way to symbolize an agreement they’ve made to all become mothers at the same time. Margie is already expecting, and as she envisions a joint baby shower for the three friends, the girls talk about how Annie, who doesn’t have a boyfriend, can fulfill her part in the pact. There’s a boy, Malik (Dwayne McCowan), who seems to like Annie, and her friends are encouraging her to make a move. Still, Annie isn’t sure, about Malik or about the agreement, even though she allows herself to get caught up in her friends’ dreaming at first, and talk of older men (like Talisha’s unseen boyfriend), cell phones as status symbols, designer diaper bags, and more. As the play continues, we see that Annie’s home life is hectic, as her mother Myrna (Michelle Dillard) works in a demanding, unfulfilling job and dreams of becoming a writer, all while she discourages Annie from spending too much focus on school. Meanwhile, she meets a new girl at school, Keera (Jillian Franks) who is always talking about church and an idealized family life; the astronomy-minded Malik tries to interest Annie in the stars, while his own home life is also complicated; and tattooist Antwoine (Brian McKinley) tells of his own artistic pursuits. The authority figures here–parents and teachers–seem to be either absent, self-absorbed, or transient, and as Annie tries to figure out her own place in the world, she often finds confusion and conflict. It’s a challenging, compelling look at life amid a system of ingrained racism and a cycle of poverty.

There are some strong performances here, particularly from Threatts, who embodies a mixture of cynicism and hope as the conflicted Annie, and from Franks as the quirky, devout Keera, whose life is more complicated than it may first appear, as well as Sharp and White as Margie and Talisha, and McCowan as the stargazing Malik. McKinley, as Antwoine and Dillard as Myrna are also excellent in their roles, and the energy and chemistry among the friends is especially strong. The production values are also memorable, with scenic designer Rama’s symbolic, all-white set (except for Malik’s telescope), atmospheric lighting by Sean Savoie, realistic character-appropriate costumes by Marissa Perry, and excellent sound by Kareem Deanes.

The world of Annie and her friends is immediate and credible, with characters whose humanity and need for love and support shines through even in harshness of some of the situations. This is a stark, challenging play that’s sure to provoke thought and necessary conversation. It’s another memorable production from the Black Rep.

The Black Rep is presenting Milk Like Sugar at Washington University’s A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre until March 3, 2019

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Canfield Drive
by Kristen Adele Calhoun and Michael Thomas Walker
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
January 16, 2019

Christopher Hickey, Kristen Adele
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is, as far as I have seen, the second major local theatre company to produce an original full-length play based on the devastating events in Ferguson in 2014. The Michael Brown shooting and its aftermath, along with the aftermaths of other police-involved shootings and the issue of ingrained systemic racism in St. Louis and around the country, is an important topic that will most likely inspire many theatrical productions. The Black Rep’s latest, Canfield Drive, is a four-person, many character play that starts with Ferguson but covers a multitude of issues stemming from that incident, and taking a much more direct, personal approach than the previous major local Ferguson play.

Unlike that previous play, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s thoughtful Until the Flood, The Black Rep’s Canfield Drive has more of a straightforward dramatic structure instead of being essentially a collection of monologues. Like the previous work, though, this show covers a variety of perspectives and is the result of a series of interviews with locals concerning the events. This show, though, makes the story more personal by centering it around specific lead characters, particularly Imani (Kristen Adele) and Brad (Christopher Hickey), who are commentators on a news program called Battleground, which covers the Ferguson events from the beginning, from the shooting itself to the protests and controversy that followed. Imani, who is black, and Brad, who is white, have decidedly different takes on the issues from the beginning, but we don’t just get to see their on-air debates. We get to see how the events affect their relationship as colleagues and how the events and the atmosphere that results effect them personally. The focus is slightly more on Imani, who has personal issues beyond Ferguson to deal with as well, and it’s her journey that provides the emotional heart of this story, although the initially obtuse Brad also gets a credible arc. In addition to these two characters, there is Marcus (Eric Conners), the host of the television show, and Rebecca (Amy Loui), a production assistant, although all four actors play multiple roles in addition to their primary ones. Through the course of the show, which takes place over a number of months, we see the perspective of the Battleground participants as well as an array of other voices, from Ferguson and St. Louis locals to national figures in the world of politics and academia. While the tone is mostly dramatic, there are also moments of biting satire, such as segments based on the television shows America’s Funniest Home Videos and Barney and Friends. This is a show that isn’t afraid to challenge its viewers, which is especially effective considering the importance of the subject matter.

The show has a brisk pace, transitioning seamlessly between the main setting and the various other perspectives presented, aided by the excellent, somewhat abstract multi-level set and striking video design and production by Peter and Margery Spack. There’s also impressive lighting design by Jim Burwinkel, detailed costumes by Marissa Perry, and strong sound design Kareem Deanes. The production, directed by the Black Rep’s artistic director Ron Himes, has an incisive, thought-provoking air and a focused approach that presents its subject with an appropriate tone of urgency.

The cast here is great, as well, led by one of the playwrights, Kristen Adele, in the central role of Imani. In this role and a few others, she commands the stage with a strong presence and range of emotions from anger, weariness, sadness, and also hope. Hickey, as Brad and others, is also excellent, taking his character on a believable arc, especially as Brad relates to Imani and learns to see the world around him from a different perspective. Conners and Loui are also strong in a variety of roles, shifting from one persona to another with credibility and seeming ease. It’s a cohesive ensemble, supporting the production and personalizing it for the audience well.

Canfield Drive is a world premiere that is important to be seen. The house was packed at the performance I attended, and the audience was especially responsive. This is a play that, even though it’s not directly interactive, seems interactive because of how confrontational and personal it is. The issues raised by the Ferguson events weren’t new then, but they were brought to the forefront and still resonate today. The continuing problem of systemic racism and injustice is still more apparent than ever, and shows like this serve as a reminder that there’s still a lot of thinking and talking to do, and especially, a lot of work to be done. The Black Rep has brought an especially moving production to the stage. Understandably, it’s not the last word we’re going to hear about Ferguson, but it’s an important one.

The Black Rep is presenting Canfield Drive at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until March 3, 2019

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Crowns
by Regina Taylor
Adadpted from the Book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Mayberry
Directed by Linda Kennedy
The Black Rep
September 15, 2018

Cast of Crowns
Photo by Dunsi Dai
The Black Rep

The first thing that catches my notice in the Black Rep’s production of Crowns by Regina Taylor is a giant hat on the stage. That’s fitting, because hats are front and center in this musical collection of stories, a celebration of hats in African American culture, and particularly among black women. It’s a fascinating subject, showcasing some exceptional talent and the superb voices of its cast while highlighting some compelling stories of several generations of women and men in the American South.

There is a connecting story here, but it’s more of a loose framework that provides a means of exploring the show’s theme. The framing device involves Yolanda, a Brooklyn teenager whose brother is killed in a shooting. Taking his red baseball cap with her to remember him, Yolanda is sent down South to live with her grandmother, Mother Shaw (Anita Jackson). Yolanda’s story is revisited several times throughout the show, serving as the introduction to various themes focusing on church services, including regular Sunday service, as well as weddings, funerals, and baptisms. The rest of the characters use these segments to tell their own stories, centering on hats and what they mean in various contexts, from African traditions to church culture, to family relationships, the Civil Rights Movement, and more. All of these stories are punctuated by songs, mostly gospel songs and hymns, showcasing the superb voices of the always excellent Jackson and the rest of the cast. It’s an occasion for thought, reflection, remembrance for those familiar with the cultural traditions portrayed here, and learning for those who aren’t.

The setting is established well, with that giant hat as the centerpiece of Dunsi Dai’s memorable scenic design, framed by stained glass windows. There’s also excellent use of lighting, designed by Joe Clapper, to set the mood throughout the production. The costume design is also particularly strong, with a variety of detailed outfits of various periods, and of course a succession of hats of many shapes and sizes, from simple to more ornate. The staging is dynamic and full of movement, as well, with Kirven Douthit-Bird’s choreography utilizing the stage setup well, as the ensemble sings and dances around the giant hat that serves as both a centerpiece and a pedestal.

The music is also a star here, with excellent songs and singing from the whole cast, and particularly Jackson, whose stage presence and vocal power are obvious, as also Amber Rose as Velma, whose solo on ‘HIs Eye is On the Sparrow” is a highlight of the production. White as Yolanda is also excellent, both vocally and in terms of acting, conveying her character’s journey well. The whole ensemble is strong, as well. In addition to Jackson, Rose, and White, Maureen L. (Hughes) Williams as Wanda, Eleanor Humphrey as Jeanette, and Myke Andrews in various male roles (including the pastor of the church) give excellent perfornances, relating their stories and singing their songs with energy and feeling.

This is a celebration of hats and culture, but also of music. It’s an outstanding showcase for great voices and fascinating stories, with humor, drama, and a strong sense of community, tradition, and shared experience. Crowns is a great start to a new season from the Black Rep.

Cast of Crowns
Photo: The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Crowns at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until September 23, 2018

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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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