DESSA ROSE BLOOMS
by Beverly Creasey
(Leigh Barrett (l) and Uzo Aduba (r) with the cast of DESSA ROSE.
Photo credit: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)
The stage at NEW REP crackles with
energy for the New England premiere of DESSA ROSE, the latest musical from the creators of ‘Ragtime’. Director RICK LOMBARDO gets powerful performances from a stellar cast in this remarkable story of 16-year-old woman’s terrifying escape from slavery and the noose . . . and the remarkable friendships which sustain her along the way.DESSA ROSE continues Tuesdays through Sundays at New Repertory Theatre, 200 Dexter Ave. in Watertown until MAY 18. For more info you can phone 617-923-8487.
UZO ADUBA gives a fierce performance as the defiant, enslaved teenager who wills herself to stand up after a savage beating and by doing so becomes a catalyst for rebellion. LEIGH BARRETT triumphs as the white woman and mistress of a plantation who after she and her baby are abandoned by her ne’er-do-well husband finds her own strength (of will and character). At first alarmed as she realizes her deep South farm is harboring runaways, she finds solace in their company and comes to believe in the abolition of slavery.
The two stories intertwine with a third, that of a villain, rather like Javert in ‘Les Miserables‘, who will pursue Dessa Rose to the ends of the earth so that she can face the hangman. Todd Alan Johnson paints an intense portrait of a man obsessed . . . but it is the secondary characters who give the musical its vitality. Joshua W. Heggie electrifies the stage, whether singing or stomping out a righteous rhythm for the (musical-ized version of the traditional) “I’ll Fly Away.” Dee Crawford‘s soaring voice and confident presence infuse the characters she plays with depth and substance (especially her heroic stand at play’s end as the trusted slave).
Edward M. Barker‘s character, Nathan, has a fascinating carnie side as the runaway slave with the scheme (right out of “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”) to outwit slave owners and turn a profit with which to buy his freedom and all the other runaways on the plantation. De’Lon Grant radiates charisma as Dessa Rose’s doomed sweetheart and A’Lisa D. Miles provides some welcome comedy mocking foolish Southern belles. Michael Kreutz and Peter Carey portray the many bad guys with creepy gusto.
Lovely songs like Barrett’s gorgeous lament, “Lonesome in the Glen” and the lover’s, “In the Bend of My Arm” give the musical its sweet resonance but the opening number ,“We are Descended” would have you believe that both Black and White stories have equal importance when it’s obvious that Dessa Rose’s is the stronger storyline. In fact, the convergence of the two doesn’t happen until the end of Act I.
Music director Todd Gordon‘s singers makes even the lack luster songs sparkle. Despite one of the oddest endings I’ve ever encountered (where one woman gets a man and the other gets a fish!), DESSA ROSE has plenty of chills, nifty plot surprises and compelling characters.
WRITER’S WORDS BROUGHT TO LIFE
by Kay Bourne
(Sherley Anne Williams (1944-1999)
SHERLEY ANNE WILLIAMS writes in the tradition of the blues, as you’ll discover should you see New Rep‘s passionate staging of the sumptuous musical drama “DESSA ROSE.” Based on a novel by this important contemporary writer, the dramatic version, with music by Stephen Flaherty and book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens debuted in 2005 at Lincoln Center Theatre with LaChanze (the next year a Tony Award for “The Color Purple”) as the title character.
The team of Flaherty and Ahrens would go on to create the musical “Ragtime,” produced in 1998, which New Rep staged last season, but it was in the early 90′s that they approached Williams for permission to translate her novel to the stage.
An African American literature professor at the University of California at San Diego, Williams had begun her life in black letters as a thinker. Her initial publication, “Give Birth To Brightness” (1972), was a discussion of Black oral tradition and its influence on ‘Neo-Black Literature,’ as well as a commentary on the particular vision that has evolved from Black centered writing. This interest of hers can be seen in “Dessa Rose” particularly in the character of Nathan, who like the African folk tale spider Anansi is a trickster and survivor through his cleverness.
The theme of Black people speaking directly to other black people in a way they do not to whites and of obfuscating information when pressed by whites to talk is also an element in a number of scenes of the story “Dessa Rose” tells. One of the encounters that combines the blues and signifying is when Dessa Rose deceives a white journalist, Nehemiah, who is trying to discern the identities of slaves who escaped a coffle in a revolt led by the pregnant teenager now languishing in prison.
Williams‘ first play was “Letters from a New England Negro,” staged by Rites & Reason on the Brown University campus in August 1991. Originally directed by Benny Sato Ambush in 1985 at the Oakland Ensemble Theater, he came east to direct this version as well. Bernice Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock was the music consultant. This story about a school for freedmen, which also takes place on a plantation in the American South but after the Civil War, also has a Black woman as the central character.
Both in the case of the Northern school teacher in “Letters from a New England Negro” and the leading figures in “Dessa Rose,” the 16-year-old leader of a slave uprising and the mistress of a plantation who becomes an abolitionist, Williams based her fiction on actual historical figures.
Williams, who was writing a sequel to her novel which she had tentatively entitled “Licensed to Dream,” died at the age of 54, before the Ahrens and Flaherty musical had been completed. Her excellence in literature had been cited on numerous occasions including a nomination for a National Book Award for her poetry, a Caldecott Award and the Coretta Scott King Book Award for a children’s picture book based on her picking cotton with her parents growing up, “Working Cotton”; and a Pulitzer Prize nomination.
In a poem about Bessie Smith, Williams connects herself with the blues singer, a style of writing that informs the dialogue of “Dessa Rose”.
“I looked in her face,” writes Williams about Bessie Smith, “and see’d the woman I’d become . . no matter what words come to my mind the song’d be her’n jes as well as it be mine.”
STIRRING TO THE BONE
by Beverly Creasey
Having seen A SHAYNA MAIDEL a number of times, it’s my opinion that the play hinges on a strong performance in the role of the Holocaust survivor. If the actress can convey the unimaginable without ever describing details of the horror, then BARBARA LEBOW‘s play succeeds in stirring us to the bone. The HOVEY PLAYERS‘ production, through MAY 17, soars because of the exquisite performance of SONIA MASLOVSKAYA as the camp survivor who is reunited with her sister and father in America after the war. Lebow gently touches on issues like survivor guilt and sins of omission but they’re couched in a bittersweet story of renewal and hope. Maslovskaya proves the axiom that the eyes are the window to the soul.
The girls’ father (Joel Hersh) escaped Poland with his youngest daughter (Kris Reynolds) but did not send for his wife and remaining child before the Nazis invaded. Although the mother died in the camps, we meet her (Kimberly McClure) in flashback memories of the older sister. Through Maslovskaya‘s touching imagination, we see her embrace her husband (Evan Bernstein) and her dearest friend (Kate Lovell). It’s a tour-de-force performance which will take your breath away.
Director FRANK MOFFETT deftly navigates the play from the comic “fish out of water” scenes to the somber “list” scene where names of murdered relatives stand in for all the victims in the camps. From the gorgeous New York City apartment by Michelle Aguillon and Gabrielle Aguillon-Hatcher (she also performs in the prologue) to Kimmerie Jones‘ lovely 40′s costumes, the Hovey Players prove they’re a little theater which can compete in the big leagues.
The Hovey Players perform at the Abbott Memorial Theatre, 9 Spring Street at Joel’s Way in Waltham. For more info you can phone at 781-893-9171.
A WONDERFUL NIGHT OF THEATER
by Josiah Crowley © 2008 (Pictured: Resident acting company members William Damkoehler, Barbara Meek and Fred Sullivan, Jr.)
The TRINITY REP THEATRE‘s recent production of Noel Coward‘s madcap classic, BLITHE SPIRIT, was a wonderful night in the theater. The comic tale of acrimonious relationships, a dizzy clairvoyant who may or may not have any genuine extra sensory powers, and a deceased wife who not only won’t stay dead, but has more than a thing or two to say to her cheating hubby and his current paramour.
The acting was superior. Barbara Meek hit a homerun as Madame Arcati, the “fake” medium/con artist who makes contact with “the other side” – much to her own amazement. Her comic befuddlement – often enhanced by a smart cocktail or three (like all Coward plays, there is much boozing it up between witty bon mots) – was a memorable feat. As Elvira, the “late” wife who refuses to “go away,” Jeanine Kane, (the understudy who went on for the absent Phyllis Kay) was a hoot in her sexy, sly turn. Fred Sullivan, Jr., as the haunted (in more ways than one) husband Charles, turned in solid work, as did the amazingly athletic Angela Brazil as Charles’s current wife.
The show closed April 27, however, the world premiere of the musical “Paris By Night”, a jazz play about gay love, with Joe Wilson, Jr. as the expatriate American nursing a broken heart in Montmarte continues through JUNE 1 at Trinity Rep in Providence.
KAY BOURNE HONORED
(pictured: Kay Bourne)
KBAR’s own, KAY BOURNE will be honored at the 17th Empowerment Recognition Breakfast this Monday, MAY 12 at the Marriott Copley Place Hotel in Boston.
The breakfast is hosted by radio show host, motivational speaker and facilitator Carole Copeland Thomas. The Keynote Speaker is Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree, a Senior Advisor to Senator Barack Obama.
Other honorees include Miriama White Hammond founder and Executive Director of Project HIP HOP and Paulette and Benjamin Ngachoko, Democracy For Africa Advocates & Co-Founders International Institute for Justice and Development.
Empowerment Recognition Breakfast ticket information
THE HIGHEST HONOR IN MARTIAL ARTS IS INTEGRITY
by Lisa Simmons
“REDBELT”, the new DAVID MAMET staring CHIWETEL EJIOFOR, is not your typical Mamet experience. No quick talking, fast editing, race car inspired cuts. It’s a little less frenetic, giving you a bit more time to understand the story.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is wonderful as Mike Terry, a Jiu-Jitsu teacher who, if placed in a ring to win money, could literally kill the competition, but who instead chooses the moral, honorable, and quiet life of a teacher. As an instructor he trains law enforcement, FBI and yes, women who have been attacked to defend themselves against the bad guys should there be a next bad experience.
Set in West L.A., the film gives something of a look into the corruption endemic to the fight industy, but often times leaves you wondering what the issue really is. Chiwetel is really the only reason that you follow this film from beginning to end. His story, his dilemma, his engaging and his thoughtful performance makes you want to stick with him to experience his journey until the end.
The film also stars Tim Allen as an aging action star/ con artist actor, Emily Mortimer as the woman whom he teaches to overcome her fear, and Alice Braga his wife and ultimate betrayer.
But mostly it is Chiwetel whose performance is one more example of why he is regarded as one of the best actors working in film today.
HAVEN ART LOUNGE and THE COLOR OF FILM COLLABORATIVE, INC. present “SUPPER CINEMA”, Saturday, MAY 10 at 7pm, featuring a powerful film about manhood entitled “RUNT” written by and starring Michael Phillip Edwards. RUNT is a striking story of Christopher Davis, a writer in Los Angeles who returns home to Jamaica, forced to confront the ancestral demons of his past, in order to be the man he wants to be for his son. Tickets are $30 per person, includes dinner catered by Poppa B’s Restaurant, a live band, and art on display by Boston artists: Barrington Edwards, Cynthia Bogues, Laurence Martin Pierce, Shea Ramone Justice and Daniel Edwards. HAVEN ART LOUNGE is located at 1820 Dorchester Avenue, not too far from Ashmont. Click here for more information.
WHEELOCK FAMILY THEATRE‘s WHEEL Awards Ceremony on MAY 17 will be a magical spring evening of great performances by WFT’s family of stars, wonderful food, fun surprises and the presentation of this year’s WHEEL Award winners: Jacques d’Amboise and Anthony Williams (founder of BalletRox) . The Awards will be at The President’s House at 295 Kent Street in Brookline, Tickets are $100 per person For more information call 617-879-225
Talks and Tours with State Representative Byron Rushing Free, pre-registration for tours required. Churches, Mosques and Synagogues. Discover the evolution of religion in Roxbury from a strict Puritan community to the diversity of religious institutions today.Slide Talk: Thursday MAY 8. Trolley Tour: Saturday MAY 10. AND Social Activism and Community Organizing Hear about the struggles for social justice and equality in Roxbury in the 20th century and today. If you were there, we invite you to share your experiences! Slide talk: Thursday MAY 15. Trolley Tour: Saturday MAY 17 Where: The Dudley Branch Library,65 Warren Street. Talks 6PM, tours 10AM-noon Come for just the talk, just for the tour, or both. Call 617 427 1006 for more details.
The 24th Annual Boston Gay and Lesbian Film/Video Festival runs until MAY 18 at The Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Films by African American Filmmakers are: Fri, May 9, 6:30 pm Don’t Go by Amber Sharp. Fri, May 16, 6:30 pm Pariah by Dee Rees. Sat, May 17, 1:30 pm black./womyn.:conversations with lesbians of African descent by Tiona M. Click here for more information.
CITY SPOTLIGHTS is MAY 16, at 10am and 7pm at the Shubert Theatre, tickets are $5 General Admission. City Spotlights is a cultural performance exploring and celebrating four Boston neighborhoods through the performing arts. This performance features Allston-Brighton, Hyde Park, Roxbury and South Boston, This year’s City Spotlights Special Guest Artists are dance artist Adrienne Hawkins, hip hop dancer Isiah Beasley, folk musicians Curragh’s Fancy, Grant A.M.E. Church Male Chorus, Johara & Snake Dance Productions, musican Missing Traces, theatre group Mixed Emotions, O’Dwyer School of Irish Dance and Uptown Dance Center. For further information, call (617) 532-1265 or Click here.
BOOGIE FOR OBAMA and party for the purpose of raising funds for OBAMA’s campaign, presented by United Thru Change (UTC) on Saturday MAY 31 8pm – 1am at HAVEN ART LOUNGE featuring old school house and R&B club classics by DJ’s Anastasie, Bob Diesel, JQ and Criss, plus spoken word and performing artists, “Inspiration” fashion designs by Forastene Bailey, and art on display by Barrington Edwards, Cynthia Bogues, Laurence Martin Pierce, Shea Ramone Justice and Daniel Edwards. HAVEN ART LOUNGE is located at 1820 Dorchester Avenue. Click here for more information.
The Roxbury Media Institute & The Haley House Bakery Cafe invite you to ‘aRt IS LiFe iTSELF! A Performance Series: Embracing Art, Culture & Spirituality’ a Multicultural, Intergenerational, Humanistic experience, every Thursday night, serving tapas starting approximately 7pm at The Haley House Bakery Cafe, 12 Dade Street, Roxbury, near Dudley station. Call 617-445-0900 for details on who’s performing each week.