'Crossin' Over' speaks clearly without a spoken word

Photo by Phillp Hamer

With the current revival of its original 2007 show “Crossin’ Over,” the Black Rep does more than introduce a new audience to one of its best productions.

It allows theatergoers who have seen “Crossin’ Over” before to reconsider what made it so good in the first place.

The strengths — a fine ensemble, a wide-ranging music selection — are still there, of course. But a second or third look helps theatergoers see something really remarkable in the structure of the show, created by Black Rep founder Ron Himes and music director Charles Creath.

 

Entirely through music and gesture, without any dialogue, “Crossin’ Over” manages to convey a big story with absolute clarity. Tracing the history of African-Americans from the other side of the Atlantic to contemporary urban churches, “Crossin’ Over” is simultaneously touching and lucid.

Not to mention entertaining. Obviously, it can’t take too deep a look into any of specific issues that it deals with, but it’s comprehensive and, in the end, pretty optimistic. If you have any interest in American cultural history, you don’t want to miss this show.

And while you’re at it, bring the kids. They’ll enjoy it, too, and the whole family will have plenty to talk about afterward.

From the opening scene, when a percussionist trio takes us to West Africa, it’s easy to fall under the spell of the show. Life in Africa seems appealing, with crops to plant, religious rituals involving a dancing totem, even a little flirtation.

But when the performers let us see disaster strike as they are captured and imprisoned on a slave ship, we appreciate their confusion and fear. The simple set, designed by Jim Burwinkle, has a couple of levels, allowing director Himes to jam the cast into a crowded hold below the deck (the upper level of the stage). Then they are separated by gender.

In both places, Himes alludes to the prisoners’ terrible suffering through the Middle Passage. A man is whipped, the women are raped. But we never see any assailants. The actors, writhing spasmodically, tell us what happens all by themselves, without a spoken word. It’s storytelling by allusion, never explicit but all too clear.

This cast includes veterans of earlier productions, plus newcomers. J. Samuel Davis, one of the most charismatic actors in town, and Herman L. Gordon, with his imposing voice, become protectors in every situation. Davis leads the terrific “99 and a Half,” an amazingly cheery injunction to keep striving, while Gordon’s delivery of “Go Down, Moses,” sounds like an actual biblical command.

Two other men, Micheal Lowe and Kelvin Roston, Jr., embody youthful courage as “Crossin’ Over” moves into stories of the auction block, the cotton fields, midnight escapes, the Great Migration, the Civil Rights movement and, finally, to today’s African-American churches.

Lowe is a fine tap dancer, and Roston and one of the women in the ensemble, Leah Stewart, sketch out a tender connection that endures through various challenges.

Stewart, Maureen L. Williams and Amber Rose are all powerful singers as they suffer, mourn the children they have lost, and appeal to God. Rose’s poignant performance of “Lord, I Want To Be a Christian” is utterly persuasive; so, later on, is Williams as the authoritative leader of a modern choir.

Venezia Manuel, a beautiful dancer of considerable range, rounds out the ensemble, performing both folkloric and lyric dances. Manuel and Mama Lisa Gage are the astute choreographers, and Himes uses all their work to enhance the show’s resonance through every era.

 

Dance complements the music that the (unseen) instrumentalists provide under music director Creath. They should have taken a bow with the others at the end. Daryl Harris designed the simple costumes, which speak to changes of time and place without compromising the actors’ movement.

You don’t have to be black to get a lot out of “Crossin’ Over.” Other ethnic groups’ stories are fascinating precisely because they are less familiar than those we know from the inside-out. I’m not even sure that you need to be an American. Human might just be enough.

“Crossin’ Over”

When • Through June 18

Where • Emerson Performance Center, Harris-Stowe State University, 3031 Laclede Avenue

How much • $10-$40

More info • 314-534-3807; theblackrep.org

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo courtesy of Phillip Hamer

Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton plays the blues. He's been offered a recording contract by a company in Chicago. Floyd is in Pittsburgh, and his electric guitar is in hock. He needs his guitar and he needs money for the Greyhound Bus. But the guitars referred to in the title of the play Seven Guitars are played by the playwright, August Wilson. They're the seven characters in his play.

Wilson does, as always, make his own beautiful and terrible music with those characters. The play takes place in 1948 in the Hill District, the black neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where Wilson set almost all his Century Plays, one for each decade of the twentieth century. The characters gather in the backyard of the house where several of them live. Tim Case has created a carefully detailed setting, with lighting by Jim Burwinkel, for Wilson's tale. Wilson takes his time telling it. We get to know these seven people, and we get to listen to them. They talk about what's happened and what they want to happen, about their suffering and their joys.

The men have all spent short stays in jail, either because, as one of them says, they had too little money or too much. Floyd has just gotten out. He does get his electric guitar and the money to get to Chicago, though he has not gotten them, we suspect, in the way he'd wanted to. Things rarely work out the way you want them to when you're black and live in the Hill District. But they can tell their troubles in the rich details and rolling rhythms of Wilson's writing. And the cast at The Black Rep, under Ed Smith's direction, knows those rhythms. Occasionally I had a little trouble hearing them, perhaps because those are not the rhythms I hear every day.

In a welcome return to town and to the Rep, Kingsley Leggs makes a fine fit for Floyd. I've never seen Linda Kennedy quite like this, because with her amazing, invisible technique, she has become Vera, who loves Floyd and whom he wants. Cathy Simpson plays her sharp friend Louise, and Lakesha Glover fascinates as a visitor who starts something that will end in another play. Phillip Dixon is a young friend of Floyd's, and Reginald Pierre plays the stylish Red Carter, who wears a white suit to a funeral. Costumes are by Michael Alan Stein. The play turns on a character who has been crazed by the racism he's suffered and that has denied him his true place as Ethiopian royalty. Ron Himes doesn't bother playing King Hedley as crazy, just sure of himself.

As always with Wilson, Seven Guitars satisfies with its rich language and its deep humanity. It continues at The Black Rep through April 23.

“Seven Guitars” at the Black Rep Is a Compelling Character-Driven Drama

Seven Guitars
by August Wilson
Directed by Ed Smith
The Black Rep
March 31, 2017

Reginald Pierre, Kingsley Leggs, Phillip Dixon
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep’s latest production is a compelling drama from one of America’s most celebrated playwrights, August Wilson. An installment in his cycle of plays chronicling the experience of African Americans in each decade of the 20th Century, Seven Guitars is a thoughtful, extremely well characterized play that presents the plight of various characters and their hopes and dreams in 1948 Pittsburgh. The Black Rep’s production is highlighted by thoughtful staging and a top-notch cast.

This is one of those plays that tells us its end at the very beginning. From the start, we know that one of the play’s central characters, blues musician Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (Kingsley Leggs) has died, and various of his friends are gathered in a backyard after his funeral. What it doesn’t tell us right away, is how Floyd died and what events led up to the gathering in the first scene, and that’s the focus of the story.  Most of the play takes place before the initial scene, and we see how Floyd, recently released from prison, tries to re-establish his relationship with girlfriend Vera (Linda Kennedy), and reconnect with fellow musicians Canewell (Phillip Dixon) and Red Carter (Reginald Pierre) and journey to Chicago for a recording session at the record company for which he recorded a previous song that has become a surprise hit. He’s staying with Vera, but Vera’s not so sure she wants Floyd back, since he had previously left her for another woman. Also in the picture are Vera’s neighbors,  Louise (Cathy Simpson) and King Hedley (Ron Himes). Hedley, who makes a living selling homemade chicken sandwiches and eggs from the chickens he raises and is treated by the others as something of an eccentric, is full of dreams, regrets, and strong opinions about how black men are treated and oppressed by the white establishment.  Louise is waiting for the arrival of her niece Ruby (Lakesha Glover) from out of town, and when Ruby finally arrives she carries with her some secrets of her own.

This is a long, complex play with extremely well-drawn characters and unfolding situations that build gradually and, eventually, explosively. The direction is deliberate and the cast is ideally chosen, led by Leggs in a compelling performance as the ambitious Floyd. He’s also got a great voice and performs well on the guitar during the show’s musical moments. Himes is also extremely strong as the determined, complex Hedley, as is Kennedy as the conflicted Vera. The whole cast is strong, and the musical performances featuring Leggs, Pierre, and Dixon are memorable as well. It’s a cohesive cast, bringing a lot of energy and weight to Wilson’s excellent script.

The technical aspects of the production are well-presented in Tim Case’s detailed set and Michael Alan Stein’s excellent period-specific costumes. Jim Burwinkel’s lighting adds a lot to the mood of the production, as does Maril Whitehead’s sound, particularly in the musical moments of the show.

Seven Guitars is a long play, but Wilson’s superb dialogue and story pacing, along with the excellent performances of the cast, makes every minute count. This is a gripping story that provides a great deal to think about in terms of how things used to be, as well as how they still are a lot of the time. It’s a memorable production from  the Black Rep.

'Crossin' Over' at The Black Rep Is an Energized, Engaging Revival: Musical Review

 

Story: From roots in Africa through the journey across the Atlantic Ocean in slave ships to slavery in the American South and from the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century to contemporary times, Crossin’ Over presents the African-American experience through the music of its culture. The two-act musical features traditional West African drumming as well as hymns, psalms and gospel standards.

Highlights: Conceived by Black Rep founder and producing director Ron Himes in 2007, a revival of this rollicking and at times soberly dramatic musical is enjoying an energized, expertrendition that closes The Black Rep’s 40th anniversary season.

Other InfoCrossin’ Over is filled with catchy, upbeat numbers that rock the house as well as soulful, mournful dirges which underscore the inhumanity of the plight of African natives kidnapped from their native lands and sold into a lifetime of slavery in America. Himes has updated his original piece here and there, and it seems more dramatic particularly in the first of its two acts than memory serves for the previous incarnation.

 

What’s certain is that Crossin’ Over features more than 60 tunes which showcase an impressive range of genres including gospel, blues, hymns and percussive riffs that make the Emerson Performance Center at Harris-Stowe State University a lively, hand-clapping, foot-stomping revival in more ways than one.

Himes has brought back four members of the original ensemble for this two-act extravaganza, including J. Samuel Davis, Herman Gordon, Kelvin Roston Jr. and Leah Stewart. Joining them on stage are revue newcomers Micheal Lowe, Amber Rose, Maureen L. Williams and Venezia Manuel, the latter who serves as the group’s primary dancer on numerous numbers.

All of them contribute substantially to the show, which under Himes’ direction maintains a fluid, steady pace through its two hours and 45 minutes of performance time. The players perform primarily in front of a wooden trapezoid set designed by Jim Burwinkel, with dancer Manuel often showcasing various moves on the top tier above the singers on the main floor of the regular stage.

Behind the set are a number of posters which are dropped during the show, ranging from masks to photos to a shocking advertisement for the sale of “prime, healthy Negroes” in the South. Late lighting designer Mark Wilson masterfully illuminates various scenes to highlight dramatic moments with a palette of arresting hues. Daryl Harris creates a cornucopia of bright, festive costumes in the African numbers as well as colorful choir garb for gospel tunes and elegant threads with a nightclub appeal.

Reggie Davis’ sound design accentuates several stunningly dramatic moments, whether the slave era in Act I or the Civil Rights movement in Act II, and Kate Slovinski provides props. Supporting all of the activity on stage are off-stage musical director Charles Creath at the keyboards with William “Rainey” Rainer on bass and drummer Jeffrey Booman Burks, keeping the accompaniment at a proper level which supports but does not overwhelm the singers.

At the start of the show percussionists Donald Ray, Jackie Sharp and Atum Jones impressively beat drums to ancient West African rhythms as they set the stage for the musical depictions of high and low times that follow.

Each of the players has a chance to shine in solo efforts and they make the most of them, led by Rose, whose soaring soprano voice seems about to break any crystal or glass that might be within earshot of her spectacular range, as she demonstrates on Lord I Want to Be a Christian, Oh, Freedom and others.

Himes divides the music into three segments in each act, starting with an Opening Medley along with an African Suite and the Captivity Suite, which is sub-titled Crossing Over in Slave Ships for its first part and Auction Block/Fields for the second.

The second act begins with an eight-tune medley in the Thomas Dorsey Suite, named for the “father of black gospel music,” Thomas Andrew Dorsey, who served for more than 40 years as music director of the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago in the mid-20th century. That segment is followed by the CivilRights Suite and the show concludes with a Contemporary Suite which begins with Oh Happy Day.

Gordon displays his big, booming voice on Go Down Moses, e.g., while Davis leads the troupe on the soulful Kakilambe number in the African Suite as well as a stirring version of Amazing Grace in the Captivity Suite. Roston wails the lament, Keep Me From Sinking Down, as well as belting out the stern words of This Old Hammer in the Captivity Suite.

Stewart leads the ensemble for It’s Gonna Rain/Didn’t It Rain in the Dorsey Suite while Williams showcases her vocal abilities on tunes including Hold on Just a Little While Longer, Kum Ba Ya and Precious Lord.

Manuel displays her lithe, limber body on several graceful numbers choreographed by her and Mama Lisa Gage, usually on the top of the trapezoid construction but occasionally on the main performance floor of the stage. Her movements accentuate the soulful numbers sung so eloquently by the cast.

Crossin’ Over seems much more dramatic in the first act than in the second, but the musical performances are engaging throughout. This reprise is a lively and fitting tribute to the skills and talents of this entourage as well as a tuneful testament to the African-American experience from one continent to another over the centuries.

 

MusicalCrossin’ Over

Company: The Black Rep

Venue: Emerson Performance Center, Harris-Stowe State University, 3026 Laclede Ave.

Dates: June 1-4, 8-11, 15-18

Tickets: $35-$40; contact 534-3810 or www.theblackrep.org

Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of Phillip Hamer

 

 

 

Dinner & A Show: Seven Guitars

 

Story: Friends and neighbors of blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton gather in the yard of the tenement building in the Hill District of Pittsburgh where he lived, circa 1948, following his funeral. In flashbacks it’s revealed how Floyd returned home from jail to the news that one of his tunes has unexpectedly become a hit song.

 

This impresses a recording company in Chicago, which wants Floyd to travel there to sign a contract for more of his songs. He wrangles with a couple of his musician pals, Canewell and Red Carter, to join him on an excursion to what he believes will be fame and success.

Floyd also wants his girlfriend Vera to accompany him, but she isn’t so sure. That’s because Floyd had left her for another woman a while back. Now, he’s come back home and is asking Vera for a second chance, something looked upon skeptically by their landlady, Louise.

 

Floyd scrambles to get his guitar out of hock at a local pawn shop, all the while begging Vera to forgive him.  All of them put up with the eccentricities of 'King' Hedley, an older resident who often refers to his African 'royalty,' and raises chickens and roosters while behaving in a manner that leads Vera to observe that “he’s not right” in the head.

When Louise’s niece Ruby arrives from the South after a mishap back home, she riles interest in some of the men even as Floyd decides to take drastic measures to ensure that he has the instruments and the money to make that lucrative trip to Chicago and certain fortune. Or so he thinks.

Highlights: The Black Rep, which previously has produced all 10 of August Wilson’s masterful Pittsburgh Cycle of plays set in each decade of the 20th century, offers an absorbing and richly satisfying rendition of Seven Guitars, the 1940s contribution by Wilson to his impressive canon of dramas. This version features a number of stellar performances under Ed Smith’s insightful direction.

Other Info: Wilson is among the greatest American playwrights of the 20th century. His long, slowly developed scripts carefully and richly develop three-dimensional characters. Patience is a virtue required to appreciate many of his works, such as this three-hour, two-act story that pays handsome dividends when performed as shrewdly as the Black Rep's presentation.

Scenic designer Tim Case sets the foundation for this effort with an impressive set which fills the Emerson Performance Center stage. It’s a two-tiered construction that represents a three-story tenement building which isn’t seedy but clearly has seen better days, judging from the aging paint on the abode as well as the debris and chicken feathers scattered liberally about Hedley’s work area at stage left. Scenic artist Christie Johnston puts some fine touches on Case’s well-etched structure.

Lighting designer Jim Burwinkel bathes the set in shades of lighting to represent various times of day and properties designer Kate Slovinski furnishes a mean machete as well as Hedley’s cooking utensils and a number of vintage guitars. It’s all embellished with Maril Whitehead’s evocative sound design which captures the spirit of Floyd’s inspired playing.

Add Michael Alan Stein’s pinpoint costumes, especially the stylish suits favored by Floyd, Red Carter and Canewell, and the period wigs furnished by Aja Mixon and the production is steeped in ‘40s flavor for African-Americans in the Rust Belt city of Pittsburgh.

Smith allows his performers plenty of time to shape their deliveries, although opening night was marred by too many missed lines that caused the production to falter now and then. With Wilson’s hefty dialogue, though, Seven Guitars is the kind of play that accomplished actors can shape into a resonating work of art, as they do here.

Kingsley Leggs, who started his storied career at The Black Rep 30 years ago before moving on to Broadway and beyond, anchors the presentation in the pivotal role of Floyd. He even gets a chance to show off his accomplished voice on an a cappella version of The Lord’s Prayer.

His sturdy performance is accentuated with a well-wrought and realized interpretation of Floyd, a man who chafes at the elusive dream of success that is tougher to realize for someone who is black even in the less overtly racist environment of Pittsburgh. Wilson inserts the periodic crow of a rooster throughout as a clarion call to action that may not be heard by everyone.

Ron Himes is deliciously off-kilter as the wily Hedley, a man whose addled conversations and oblique logic are accepted by neighbors who endure his dialogues with mystical sorts while he goes about his business of making chicken sandwiches. Himes is expert as well at conveying the menacing aspects of Hedley which erupt at unexpected times in frightening fashion.

There’s accomplished supporting work by Linda Kennedy as the good-hearted Vera, who loves Floyd but really doesn’t trust his wayward ways. Cathy Simpson makes the most of the show’s share of comedy as the wise-cracking Louise, always a step ahead mentally of her roustabout tenants and a sage counselor to the long-suffering Vera.

Phillip Dixon and Reginald Pierre offer well-honed portrayals of Floyd’s pals Canewell and Red Carter, the former a rather serious sort and the latter a Beau Brummell-type who knows the latest dance moves and flashes an ever mischievous smile. Lakesha Glover adds to the wealth of the seven characters -- the ‘seven guitars’ – as Ruby, the Southern girl looking for a fresh start.

 

Smith situates his players judiciously throughout this compelling and thoughtful rendition, making Seven Guitars resonate with dramatic power. It’s one of Wilson’s greatest hits.