September 15, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
Director, Choreographer and Lyricist Thomas W. Jones II and Musical Director William Knowles are the collaborators of a world premiere musical at MetroStage. Adapted from the murder mystery, “Blackberry Days of Summer” by Lynchburg native Ruth P. Watson, Blackberry Daze is the story of a mother and her teenage daughter, a jazz club singer and her soldier husband back from World War I, a host of churchgoing ladies, and a two-timing hustler. Set in the backwoods of rural Virginia the action swings back and forth from the sophisticated Black nightclubs in Washington, DC to a hard knock life in the country.
Ayana Reed plays Carrie Parker, a teenager struggling with a grim secret, with Roz White as her mother, Mae Lou. Mae Lou has a heart of gold until she meets and marries Herman Camm, a fast-talking lowlife, and betrays her daughter’s trust. Reed gives an outstanding and deeply affecting performance, and though her character is by far the most emotionally critical element it is not given enough importance. For me, Carrie’s plight and ultimate redemption, is where the real story lies. I compare it to the films “Precious” or “The Color Purple”, for sheer poignancy. Unfortunately, Carrie’s story is truncated by an overabundance of gospel tunes interspersed with jazz songs of the era. And though Reed has but a single solo in “Palm of God”, it is the most indelible moment of the show.
TC Carson succeeds in portraying the slick Camm, a cad and rapist who has the whole town gunning for him, including his red hot paramour and juke joint singer, Pearl (the husky-voiced Yvette Spears). But tying the characters and their motives together becomes confusing when the story is overloaded with so many disparate objectives. There are fourteen numbers in all, including the surprisingly chosen, “O Holy Night”. It was baffling at times trying to make out whose story was being told, and by whom. In some cases, the characters tell their own stories which would work better if there were one narrator. Some streamlining would help clear this up, but where? It would be blasphemous to cut any of Knowles’ songs. And with a seasoned, stand-out cast of Carson as Herman Camm; White as Carrie’s mother Mae Lou; Duyen Washington as both Ginny and Auntie May; Nia Harris as Hester; and Duane Richards II in dual roles as Simon, Carrie’s adoring boyfriend, and Willie, Pearl’s husband; whose lines would you cut?
Better yet focus on the razzmatazz of the era, the fine acting, Knowles’ onstage piano playing, and the dance segments.