Black Pearl Sings ~ MetroStage

Jordan Wright
April 26, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Roz White ~ Teresa Castracane ~ Photo credit Chris Banks

Roz White ~ Teresa Castracane ~ Photo credit Chris Banks

Sandra L. Holloway’s searing production of Black Pearl Sings opens to the haunting music of a Black chain gang singing in cadence as they swing their pickaxes to the dirge-like rhythm.  This indelible, spine-tingling chant leads us to Alberta ‘Pearl’ Johnson who has spent ten miserable years in a swamp-surrounded prison in southeast Texas for the murder of her abusive husband.  The story is inspired by folklorist John Lomax’s real life discovery of the legendary folk singer and guitarist, Huddie ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter.

In this telling, Johnson is discovered by Susannah Mullally, an ambitious, and not incidentally, White ethnomusicologist employed by the Library of Congress to uncover America’s earliest indigenous music, and, by deduction, its African roots.  “You are a doorway to our past,” Susannah pleads.  Playwright Frank Higgins, whose previous work has starred such notable actresses as Blythe Danner and Gwyneth Paltrow, gives pathos and humor to this sensitive portrait of a woman hardened by a segregationist South and the destructive men in her life.

Roz White and Teresa Castracane ~ Photo credit Chris Banks

Roz White and Teresa Castracane ~ Photo credit Chris Banks

At first Susannah’s attempts to coax the old plantation songs out of Johnson are met with a steely rebuke.  But eventually, after a considerable period of enmity and suspicion and her description of the suppression of her country’s Gaelic language, the two women form a partnership with Susannah gaining Pearl’s freedom, hard-fought trust and a wealth of songs.

Twenty memorable American folk songs and spirituals weave in and out of this musical, performed entirely in a capella by Roz White’s sinuous contralto and Teresa Castracane’s lilting Irish mezzosoprano and led by legendary Musical Director William Hubbard.  Their shared struggles, Pearl’s to earn enough money to track down her long, lost daughter, and Susannah’s seeking success as a woman in a man’s world, eventually bring the women together culminating in a heart-wrenching duet with “Six Feet of Earth” at the end of the second act.  Other numbers familiar to many of us are “Down on Me”, later made famous by Janis Joplin (also called “Pearl”), “This Little Light of Mine”, the Gospel favorite “Do Lord, Remember Me”, the sultry “Don’t You Feel My Leg”, and the universal peace anthem, “Kum Ba Yah”.

Roz White and Teresa Castracane ~ Photo credit Chris Banks

Roz White and Teresa Castracane ~ Photo credit Chris Banks

There are many funny bits but one that gets knowing laughter is when Pearl makes reference to her birth home on the Gullah island of Hilton Head, which back then was a desolate island off the coast of South Carolina populated by the descendants of African slaves.  After hearing a developer recount his vision of a golf course and condos on the tiny island, she decides to use it to motivate her to follow Susannah’s vision for her success.  It’s knowing how that turned out, that resonates with us.

Highly recommended.

At MetroStage through May 29th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

Shake Loose – A Musical Night of Blues Moods & Icons – MetroStage

Jordan Wright
February 1, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

(L-R) Anthony Manough, Lori Williams,Rayshun LaMarr, Roz White - Photo credit: Chris Banks

(L-R) Anthony Manough, Lori Williams,Rayshun LaMarr, Roz White – Photo credit: Chris Banks

If you’ve been seeing clouds of steam heat billowing over the rooftop of MetroStage lately, blame it on the four-member cast and six-piece band of Shake LooseFire and ice and everything nice best describes the cool daddies and hot ladies in this sizzling revue of music by William Knowles and William Hubbard and the lyrics of Thomas W. Jones II who doubles as the show’s choreographer.  If you’ve followed the musical careers of the composers there are songs and snippets from their other hit shows – Ladies Swing the Blues, Cool Papa’s Party, Three Sistahs, Bessie’s Blues, and Pearl Bailey…by request – shows that have been at the core of MetroStage’s musical productions over the years.

Geared to each decade the show taps into the zeitgeist of 20th century African-American music to include vaudeville, big band, jazz, R&B, swing, rural gospel and soul, with a smattering of Broadway-style show tunes.  Supporting the pitch-perfect soulful voices of Lori Williams, Roz White, Rayshun LaMarr and Anthony Manough, are the sweet sounds of a trio of horns and the slow thump of a bass with Knowles himself on a grand piano.

(L-R) Roz White, Rayshun LaMarr, Anthony Manough, Lori Williams - Photo credit: Chris Banks

(L-R) Roz White, Rayshun LaMarr, Anthony Manough, Lori Williams – Photo credit: Chris Banks

But this is not a concert, it’s a series of seven movements that divide and define the 39 memorable numbers.  It opens with the section “Migration Blues” when the rhythms of 1920’s Harlem beckoned blacks to leave the South in droves for the bright lights and vaudeville stages of uptown New York.  There are jumpin’ and jivin’ numbers dotted with the staccato sounds of the quartet’s mad tapping skills in “Sho’ Feet Can Dance” and mournful ballads like, “Rivers Swollen With My Tears” delivered heartachingly by Williams who warns of “rivers that bury the bones”.  Here Robbie Hayes’ projections follow the early days of Black musical history with clips of New York’s famed Cotton Club and its glamorous chorus girls, and as one lyric claims, “Every boy’s an Almond Joy.”

The demise of the big stages and the rise of vinyl is chronicled in the second movement, “Riot & Rebellion”.  In “SSOS” (alternately expressed as sweet sound of soul and sweet sound of surrender) the foursome shift dance styles to The Watusi and Hully Gully while projections of Malcolm X, sit-ins and the march to Selma take us down to the nitty-gritty and Williams again solos in “Lay Your Body Down” as the images recall the assassinations of the great leaders of our time.  And in no time flat we’re swaying to the gyrations of Manough and White in “A Basement Kind of Love” and recalling the days of impromptu parties and hookups in the basement of 1960’s homes everywhere.

(L-R) Lori Williams, Rayshun LaMarr - Photo credit: Chris Banks

(L-R) Lori Williams, Rayshun LaMarr – Photo credit: Chris Banks

Rolling through the decades of jazz and swing White takes the spotlight in “Barely Breathing”, a song from Three Sistahs that evokes the hot soul sounds of the era and describes a hook up as, “I was his cocoa Cinderella throwin’ myself a ball.”

The cast utilizes every piece of available real estate from the tiered stage and between the aisles to bring the joyful and occasional heartbreaking songs to the audience.  It’s like being in a nightclub where the band jams out on stage behind the singers.

Each singer takes a sexy, sultry star turn in this hold-your-breath production.  The music is as mesmerizingly haunting as anything from Tin Pan Alley or 60’s Detroit, and where Michael Jackson, Nat King Cole, Boyz to Men and other musical icons are remembered and re-interpreted.  Utterly riveting for the beautifully blended harmonies, hilarious antics, and the music and lyrics from these iconic composers.  I can hardly wait to see this show again.

Highly recommended.

At MetroStage through March 6th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

Uprising – MetroStage

Jordan Wright
September 29, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times

As part of this fall’s ongoing Women’s Voices Theater Festival featuring over 50 world premiere productions of plays by female playwrights, MetroStage Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin presents Uprising, a musical telling of the true story of noted abolitionist Osborne “Ossie” Perry Anderson.  Set against the backdrop of a free black community during Secession Era America, it reflects a time of grave uncertainty, even for freed African Americans, who remain in fear of being kidnapped for bounty, taken south and sold again.

(right to left) Cynthia D. Barker as Sal and Anthony Manough as Ossie - Photo credit: Chris Banks

(right to left) Cynthia D. Barker as Sal and Anthony Manough as Ossie – Photo credit: Chris Banks

Ossie (Anthony Manough), on the run as the lone black survivor of John Brown’s ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry, encounters Sal (Cynthia D. Barker), a freed slave who picks cotton to support a child she has taken in.  Ossie begs Sal not to turn him in, but she has plans for the future and is conflicted.  Together they represent two diametrically opposing choices for African Americans of their day – – insurrection or keeping within the established racial system in an attempt to improve their lot.  Sal chooses to work for meager wages on the plantation in the hopes of building a school for her adopted son, Freddie (Jeremiah Hasty), while Ossie is determined to crush the backbone of slavery by convincing others to join his movement.

Little Freddie, played by Jeremiah Hasty - Photo credit: Chris Banks

Little Freddie, played by Jeremiah Hasty – Photo credit: Chris Banks

The musical opens with the melancholy strains of Tuneman’s blues guitar setting the tone for the conflicts to come.  Conditions are relatively good for the men and women on this plantation just north of the Mason-Dixon line and their paternalistic boss, Whistle (Peter Boyer), often rewards them with bonuses.

When Sal finds Ossie in the field hungry and cold, she rejects his advances, refusing to feed him or offer shelter, afraid to jeopardize her freedom.  But Ossie persists and Sal is fascinated by his surprising eloquence, his ability to read and his courtly manners.  “Words,” he tells her, “I’ve seen them heal a man.”  “Kill em too!” insists Sal who proves an equally verbal sparring partner to Ossie’s progressive views.

When Whistle learns of the insurrection and of Ossie’s escape, he becomes a cruel master, “I’m appalled at the lawlessness,” he barks, threatening them with reduced pay.  If they find the fugitive, they must turn him in.  When Ossie tries to convince the others to “Liberate your souls!” and join the movement, Bo-Jack (Djob Lyons), who’s hidden his love for Sal, and Ossie get into a brawl and all their lives become endangered.

(left to right) Cynthia D. Barker,Peter Boyer, Doug Brown, Cynthia D. Barker, Jeremiah Hasty, Anthony Manough, Enoch King - Photo credit Chris Banks

(left to right) Cynthia D. Barker,Peter Boyer, Doug Brown, Cynthia D. Barker, Jeremiah Hasty, Anthony Manough, Enoch King – Photo credit Chris Banks

Musical interstices composed by Theodis Ealey and directed by William Knowles, are soulful and uplifting, filled with the emotionally stirring strains of gospel, spirituals and plantation work chants and blended by this cast’s exquisite voices.

Brilliantly directed by Thomas W. Jones II who has cast an impressive ensemble to present this powerful tale – – Manough, Barker, Lyons, Doug Brown as Charlie, Naomi LaVette as Lottie; David Cole as Tuneman, the strolling minstrel, and the captivating Jeremiah Hasty making his stage debut as Sal’s boy, Freddie.  (Expect the inimitable Roz White to resume the roles of Lottie and Miss Ellen May, and Enoch King to return as Bo-Jack as they end their roles in a national touring company and rejoin the cast.)

Costume Designer, Janine Sunday, captures the period perfectly with subtle colors that blend seamlessly with Set/Projection Designer Robbie Hayes grainy-filtered backdrops of life in the Deep South.

Highly recommended.

At MetroStage through October 25th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

The Letters – MetroStage

Jordan Wright
May 17, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Michael Russotto, Susan Lynskey Photo credit Chris Banks

Michael Russotto, Susan Lynskey
Photo credit Chris Banks

In 1930’s Russia, privacy was a luxury afforded to no one.  Suspicion and accusation were the business of the ‘The State’ and its bureaucracy was vast and unyielding.  In The Letters, playwright John W. Lowell thrusts us headlong into the underbelly of the Soviet political machine in a two-person drama that focuses on the machinations of that pursuit.

Anna is an editor in a department investigating famed Soviet composer Tchaikovsky for his homosexual lifestyle, a crime against the State.  His personal cache of letters to an unnamed man, have been confiscated, and her department of three has been tasked with investigating and censoring them for homophonous references.  In this Orwellian world of interrogator-and-accused all perceived ‘illegal’ activities threaten the business of the State and those who breached these anti-intellectual statutes were tortured into confession or sentenced to a life in a remote gulag or death.  It is a cautionary tale, one which calls to mind the evil regimes of the Spanish Inquisition and Nazi era.

The Director is the apparatchik on whose stringent edicts all investigations turn.  When Anna is summoned into his office, a single room in which the play is set, it is to frighten her into implicating her fellow editors by accusing them of concealing copies of the letters.  The explanation as to why she would defend their honor, is left to the audience’s imagination.

Anna Borisovna, a widow whose late husband, a cellist, was also in the Arts.  Because of that she is seen to be sympathetic to Tchaikovsky’s fate, and in turn the fate of her two colleagues, the young Josef and the elder Pavel.  Offering her an advancement, the Director alternately flatters, “No person likes their efforts to be ignored,” and threatens, “You are already a dupe,” he insinuates, suggesting she is covering for her fellow editors.  “Are you also a traitor?”

As his seemingly innocent conversation of feigned familiarity unfolds we soon realize he is bent on entrapping her into revealing the location of the letters and admitting a conspiracy among her associates.  But Anna catches on to the cat-and-mouse game and turns the tables on the Director.  “In this office Truth is an annoyance, an embarrassment,” she asserts, hoping to dissuade his diabolical methods.

Susan Lynskey -  Photo credit: Chris Banks

Susan Lynskey –
Photo credit: Chris Banks

Susan Lynsky, whom we adored most recently in MetroStage’s production of “Ghost-Writer” in a role that earned her a Helen Hayes Awards nomination, is the consummate actor.  Her ability to inhabit the spirit and gravitas of Anna is a master class in character divination and the reason she is so highly regarded in her craft.  To watch her is to appreciate her finely tuned technique of actualizing her character by slow turns.  Here we see her ability to turn on a dime from shrinking violet to pouncing cat, and make it believable – – in spades.

Michael Russotto Photo credit: Chris Banks

Michael Russotto
Photo credit: Chris Banks

Michael Russotto plays the pugnacious and arrogant Ministry Director.  He is the perfect counterpoint to Lynsky’s controlled unfolding of Anna.  He struts and poses, gesticulates wildly, and terrifies convincingly, taking full use of the whole stage to inform and establish his character.  A skill few actors ever do well.

Giorgos Tsappas present us with a spare set – – a desk and a smattering of chairs – – all the better to focus on the performers.  Stage lighting, reminiscent of a 1930’s movie, is masterfully designed by Alexander Keen.

Taut, crisp and politically charged, it is highly recommended.

At MetroStage through June 14th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

Bessie’s Blues – MetroStage

Jordan Wright
January 29, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

TC Carson, Lori Williams, Stephawn Stephens, Roz White, Djob Lyons, Nia Harris, LC Harden Jr., Bernardine Mitchell - Photo credit Chris Banks

TC Carson, Lori Williams, Stephawn Stephens, Roz White, Djob Lyons, Nia Harris, LC Harden Jr., Bernardine Mitchell – Photo credit Chris Banks

“I heard it said the Blues was the Truth.” And Bessie Smith had an intravenous line along the Truth Trail and straight to the heart of the Blues.  Bessie’s Blues is a powerful homage to Smith.  Produced by Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin this is neither a tribute concert, nor a paean to the late great blues singer, but a full throttle musical interpretation of her life and times, both good and bad.  Bernadine Mitchell, Lori Williams and Roz White are among the cast of eight powerhouse singers.

Bernardine Mitchell, Lori Williams, Djob Lyons, Roz White - Photo credit Chris  Banks

Bernardine Mitchell, Lori Williams, Djob Lyons, Roz White – Photo credit Chris Banks

Thirty-three numbers, many co-written by the show’s writer, director and choreographer, Thomas W. Jones II, are belted, scatted, swung, jived, barbershopped and tenderly delivered by this exceptional ensemble rounded out by TC Carson, Stephawn P. Stephens, Djob Lyons, LC Harden, Jr. and Nia HarrisWilliam Knowles leads the five-piece band that throws out some serious joint-jumpin’ chops.

The storyline that strings it together with soulful sounds is the rise to fame and fortune of the woman known as the “Empress of the Blues”.  Smith’s life afforded plenty of raw material for Jones to work with – – her problems with men and managers, the Great Depression, racial discrimination, and her alcoholism.  As Bessie says, “Pain ain’t got no geography.”

Mitchell, who has played iconic singers before at MetroStageMahalia comes to mind – owns this role and she proves it without a shadow of a doubt by reaching deep within to reveal the glory of her rare and matchless voice.  Mitchell could rip the skin off a crocodile with her heart-wrenching vocals that display her breathtaking vocal range and high-wattage with the ability to scale back to lullaby level when it’s called for.

Costume Designer Frank Labovitz has adorned the women in Charleston era style with boas, feathers, fringe, red hot silk gowns and sexy lurex minis, while the men sport the plaid sharkskin suits of the Minstrel shows and the sequined vests of Vaudeville hoofers.  In an uptown party scene where Smith is disastrously presented to high society, they sashay around in black tie with bowlers and canes.

Roz White, Djob Lyons, LC Harden Jr., TC Carson, Nia Harris, Stephawn Stephens -   Photo credit: Chris Banks

Roz White, Djob Lyons, LC Harden Jr., TC Carson, Nia Harris, Stephawn Stephens –
Photo credit: Chris Banks

Roz White plays “Rhythm” a tougher side of Smith that reveals her motivation to be successful.  “I could shake my bottom or pick cotton,” she declares which she does when she joins the Moses Stokes’ Traveling Show with Ma Rainey at St. Louis’s famed Ivory Theatre where the music speaks of “sweet steppin’ papas and hip shakin’ mamas”.

As “Passion” Lori Williams’s sweet voice adds a sexy, sultry element to the show.  On “Wet Match” (“You can’t light a fire with a wet match.”) she shows her way of sensuously carving out notes that is both alluring and assertive at the same time.

TC Carson, Nia Harris, Djob Lyons, LC Harden Jr., Roz White, Stephawn Stephens - Photo credit Chris Banks

TC Carson, Nia Harris, Djob Lyons, LC Harden Jr., Roz White, Stephawn Stephens – Photo credit Chris Banks

Nia Harris is “The Dancer” – – a sort of alter ego to Bessie.  Wearing flapper dresses or flowing streams of chiffon, the sprite-like Harris weaves in and out of Smith’s journey, interpreting her travails through movement.  Harris, who has trained at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the Alvin Ailey School, is sheer magic as she silently executes her sinuous movements in an exquisitely choreographed interplay.

Highly recommended.

At MetroStage through March 15th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.