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Gun & Powder ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
February 10, 2020 

An intriguing musical made its world premiere at Signature.  In it, twin mulatto sisters use their beauty, wits and a pistol to deceive and rob whites.  It promises a happy ending but is that enough to take us along on their criminal enterprise?

Emmy Raver-Lampman (Martha) and Solea Pfeiffer (Mary) in Gun & Powder at Signature Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman

In contemporary playwright Angela Chéri’s Gun & Powder with music by Ross Baum, we are taken on a journey through a period of American culture, both racist and lawless.  It was originally presented as a reading from Signature Theatre’s SigWorks: Musical Theater Lab program and was based on a somewhat true story of Chéri’s great-great aunts.  It’s as much a story of female empowerment as it is of the wild West.  In the same vein as Annie Get Your Gun and, say, Paint Your Wagon, it explores themes of racism and female bravery in times of slavery.

Emmy Raver-Lampman (Martha) and Donald Webber Jr. (Elijah) in Gun & Powder at Signature Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman

That’s the part we like.  However, do we condone their tactics any more than we would condone and encourage those of any other criminal?  As a social construct for a musical based on revenge for racism, I fear it is not.  Leaving that aside to address its staging, acting, directing and music, we come upon another dilemma – how to make it palatable, or believable.  As a musical, it is faultless in its production values as well as its casting.  The voices are beautiful, and the acting, as well as dancing, are sans criticism.  However, the lyrics are often awkward, and 28 numbers are overkill.

Dan Tracy (Jesse) and Solea Pfeiffer (Mary) in Gun & Powder at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller

The story unfolds with freed slaves, Mary and Martha, beautiful, light-skinned, twin sisters, freed slaves living with their mother, Tallulah, on a plantation in Texas.  The owner is a cruel master who threatens to throw them off his land for not picking enough cotton.  When their mother gives them a gun, the girls soon devise a plan to rob unsuspecting white passengers on a train to get enough money to pay off the plantation owner.  “Ya better come back in the two pieces you left in!” she warns them.

Awa Sal Secka (Flo) and Yvette Monique Clark (Sissy) in Gun & Powder at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

After becoming wildly successful robbing brothels, a barbershop, a church, and any whites in their path – they soon meet Jesse, a white saloon owner who believes the sisters are white.  They make a plan to hustle him, but soon love follows for Mary, while Martha is smitten with his black butler, Elijah.

Crystal Mosser (Fannie) in Gun & Powder at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller

The real beauty and comic relief of the show are Jesse’s black maids, Sissy and Flo, who have figured out the girls’ scheme.  They know the sisters are “high yellow” and are passing undetected by Jesse.  Their snarky comments behind her back are hilarious and their wisdom is echoed by a chorus of Kinfolk, who are blacks tied to the sisters by spirit and blood.  Whenever the chorus appears, the entire show is elevated by both song and dance, unifying the construct and lending deeper meaning to the women’s original motive to save their mother from despair.

Emmy Raver-Lampman (Martha) in Gun & Powder at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Mary’s song, “The Way I Am” is a stunning solo, as is the beautifully sung number, “The Shot That Shook the Soul” performed by the company in the style of the 19th century Fisk Jubilee Choir.

This show has real promise and powerful relevance. I hope it gets the attention and reworking it deserves.

Emmy Raver-Lampman (Martha), Marva Hicks (Tallulah) and Solea Pfeiffer (Mary) in Gun & Powder at Signature Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman

With Solea Pfeiffer as Mary Clarke; Emmy Raver-Lampman as Martha Clarke; Dan Tracy as Jesse; Marva Hicks as Tallulah Clarke; Donald Webber, Jr. as Elijah; Yvette Monique Clark as Sissy; Awa Sal Secka as Flo; Crystal Mosser as Fannie Porter.  The Kinfolk are played by Yvette Monique Clark, Amber Lenell Jones, Rayshun LaMarr, Da’Von T. Moody, Christopher Michael Richardson, Awa Sal Secka, and Kanysha Williams.  Ensemble players are Wyn Delano, Christian Douglas, Crystal Mosser and Eleanor Todd.

Directed by Robert O’Hara; Choreography by Byron Easley; Music Direction by Darryl G. Ivey; Costumes by Dede Ayite; Scenic Design by Jason Sherwood; Lighting Design by Alex Jainchill; Sound Design by Ryan Hickey.

Through at February 23rd at Signature Theatre, (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.

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