December 19, 2008
A different ‘home for the holidays’
by Greg Boyle
The Women of Brewster Place is a bold choice for a holiday production then again the Unicorn Theatre is known for its bold choices. No toy soldiers dance with dreamy-eyed little ballerinas in this corner of the world. Instead, we receive a slice-of-life musical with characters who are by turns strong and weak, kind and vicious, helpful and self-destructive — in other words, fully human. Plenty of humor gets mixed in with the drama, and the music by Tim Acito is a pleasing combination of ‘70s funk, R&B and gospel.
Blessed by an excellent sound system, the musical arrangements allow us to catch all the lyrics of the twenty-two songs. Most of the interaction on stage is sung, but thanks to sound designer Roger Stoddard, we can understand the words, as opposed to many operatic renditions of Les Miz, for example. The eight ladies in the cast do a creditable job, especially when singing — no mediocre singers in this bunch.
The set design by Gary Mosby, constructed by Glenn Lewis, gives us an eerily realistic view of a run-down urban housing project. The cracked asphalt downstage looks like it was lifted from a downtown Kansas City neighborhood and transported directly to the theatre. A large brick wall establishes the rear border of the project, providing the characters and us with a claustrophobic sense of being hemmed in. The wall represents the hopes of the characters being continually held in check, and in the second act provides a canvas for a horrifyingly vivid lighting effect created by Jeffrey Cady.
The Women of Brewster Place is based upon the eponymous book written by Gloria Naylor. It was produced as a TV movie by Oprah and received a lot of flack for its negative portrayals of African-American men. The musical version, first produced in 2007, avoids the problem by having a cast composed entirely of women. Men play a central role in the psyches of all these women, but unfortunately, not their daily lives.
In his adaptation, playwright Acito has taken characters that were originally stereotypes and tried to give them some depth. He succeeds in a few cases. Mattie, the narrator for the piece, feels very real as played by Davita J. Wesley Vaughn. She works non-stop, encourages the younger women, and attempts to be grandmother to some of the babies in the neighborhood.
Nedra Dixon convinces us of Etta Mae’s funny, sexy, sad and yearning soul. Also very effective was Nicole S. Williamson as Cora Lee, the young mother of seven children, who gives us an unforced humanity and ability to grow in spite of circumstances.
Lori Wellman’s Sophie had the lead in some of the musical highlights of the show, with major production numbers on “Dumbass” and “That Girl Is Going to Be Trouble.” Her vocal stylings display her roots as a jazz vocalist.
Areli Gil plays Lorraine, a schoolteacher in the community. Gil’s extended pantomime action sequence in the second act is brilliantly staged and acted.
Although the action is set in 1975, the themes of The Women of Brewster Place have universal and timeless application. African-American history is most often told as a tale of woe. But like the Jews, the race continues to rise above its suffering, and in doing so, teaches its oppressors the true meaning of humanity. Mattie, who provides the emotional center for the play, sings of it in her last song, “Because My Soul Is Dry”. She expresses the difficulty of carrying on through the pain, but refuses to surrender and soldiers on regardless.
The Women of Brewster Place presents a triumph of the spirit, which could be another way of expressing the Christmas story. So, maybe it’s not such an unusual choice for the holidays after all.
The Women of Brewster Place plays at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main Street, through Jan. 11. For tickets, call the box office at 816-531-PLAY or visit www.UnicornTheatre.org.
Greg Boyle can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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