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LaChanze Stars in ‘Trouble in Mind’ Alice Childress’ Brilliant Play at American Airlines Theatre

LaChanze, Chuck Cooper, Michael Zegen in Trouble in Mind American Airlines Theatre Roundabout Theatre Company (Joan Marcus)

Alice Childress finally receives a proper Broadway premiere in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s very humorous and profound production of Trouble in Mind, directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. Childress’ work, which stars an exceptional lead cast (LaChanze, Chuck Cooper, Michael Zegen, Brandon Michael Hall, Jessica Frances Dukes, Danielle Campbell) is a complex, sardonic and LOL play. It explores the cultural backdrops, impossible Civil Rights issues in the nation and their impact on the world of New York City theater in the 1950s.

The theatrical lens that Childress uses employs her own life experiences as an actress who never received roles which would allow her to express the full range of her talents onstage because of her skin color. Indeed, very few of the black theater actors were treated with the respect they deserved, tethered to the stereotypical roles that continued to foment institutional racism in the South and the North because such roles “comforted” the audiences and solidified the power structure.

The Roundabout Theatre Company’s Trouble in Mind (Joan Marcus)

It is to her credit and our great appreciation that Childress was a maverick who wrote Trouble in Mind (1955) that was well received off Broadway, but whose backers wanted major cuts and extrapolations before they brought it to Broadway to stem their fear of offending the largely white audience and hurting receipts. Rather than agree with having her artistic truthfulness destroyed to line the pockets of the producers, though it would further her career, Childress took a stand and pulled the play. Her actions present a beacon of courage for artists everywhere. Nevertheless, in refusing to compromise the themes, characters and indictments of the play against racism, she became a martyr for great theater art, and the work was excluded for 66 years from a Broadway presentation until this year.

Though others took up the cause and presented her play in various venues (it is being done in London) historically this incident indicates the dark clouds that hover over Broadway and theater to this day in issues of censorship, whether right or left, and the sub rosa, sometimes unspoken but understood restrictions placed upon artists and writers, whose works have great moment for our time, but who will never be given a hearing because of the gatekeepers and inherent power structure which shoots them down for whatever reason.

Trouble in Mind cleverly exposes this type of racist, sexist banishment and oppression with ridicule and ironic humor to powerful effect. The playwright reveals the hierarchy and dualism (controlled vs. controllers) of the theater world using a play within a play structure. The power structure is nullifying; there is no collaboration to make a better production. There is only the insistence in maintaining what is, killing artistry with repetition and dead, wooden characters, relationships and themes to pamper audiences.

(L to R): Brand Michael Hall, LaChanze, Chuck Cooper in Trouble in Mind (Joan Marcus)

Thus, in the name of entertainment, truth is sacrificed and the vital purpose of theater to touch peoples’ lives and bring people together in a sense of community, is never fully realized. Indeed, Childress shows that such mediocre and superficial plays result in the wiping out of the true nature, identity, relationships and reactions of Black people historically in the US., depriving society of the spectacular contributions of a people and culture they refuse to acknowledge.

As the play opens Childress hints at this when experienced actress Wiletta Mayer (the incisive LaChance) shows the ropes to inexperienced John Nevins ( the collected, often innocently funny Brandon Michael Hall) in how to deal with their director Al Manners (an ironic name if ever there was one). Michael Zegen portrays the increasingly stressed and unlikeable director, a difficult role, with nuance and fervency. Wiletta with the help of veteran actors Sheldon Forrester (the inimitable and drop dead hysterical Chuck Cooper) and Millie Davis (the fine Jessica Frances Dukes) show John how to subtly “Yasss” the director, and second guess what he wants without being abrasive and obstructionist. For example, one inside joke is milked throughout the play: Wiletta tells John not to say he’s “inexperienced.” “Just tell him you were in Porgy and Bess as a child!” Since Childress prepped the audience for this joke, when it is reiterated to Manners, it’s double meaning is hysterical.

Trouble in Mind, The Roundabout Theatre Company (Joan Marcus)

Schooling John in how to negotiate being black in white theater is superbly rendered by the LaChanze, Cooper, Dukes and Hall to reveal the key themes of the play. Humor has helped blacks be incredibly resilient survivors as they continually dupe their “handlers” about what they really feel. On the other hand it has been soul killing to not be real and authentic. We understand this torment when Wiletta finally confronts the director with her truth because she is tired of the charade of “getting over” while subjugating herself and her identity. An elucidating irony reveals this is double indemnity. Such oppression is suicidal to whites as they push the racist line of the patriarchy to the point where such higher ups limit their artistic endeavors, achievements and bottom line for themselves.

How much more might theater be enriched if truthful revelations were embraced regarding all cultures and races? It would be life affirming and life changing. But the walking dead don’t know the difference. Instead, they refuse to be offended.

After Wiletta, Sheldon and Millie “educate” John in the black etiquette theater manual of how to be a success in the company of whites, he proves such a superior pupil in navigating the racist white attitudes that he uses their knowledge against them, confused about his core self. As the audience is made knowledgeable about blacks’ dual identities, it realizes that it is being ridiculed with Childress’ brilliant set ups of humor. This is an indictment of the culture which “can’t handle” the reality that they are bigots and their racism must be coddled. The epitome of this sardonic thread is the truth that blacks are actually the polite, smart adults in “putting up with” whites’ necessary inhumanity of racism when via projection they are treated as children who don’t know much of anything. Who is duping whom in self-betrayal?

LaChanze and Simon Jones in Roundabout Theatre Company’s Trouble in Mind (Joan Marcus)

The playwright’s ironies are sage. Indeed, the audience, like the white controllers, is being “had,” if they think blacks enjoy oppression, insult and having their civil rights and humanity negated. A pure pleasure is how Childress presents all of these aforementioned themes and relates them to our culture today.

I find it interesting that the original producers were so worried that they actually had the “sensitivity” to realize that the play indicts the audience’s bigotry and racism. Or maybe they were upset at something else? Their own bigotry? The joke is wide-ranging; but the producers weren’t laughing, though the joke was on them when Childress refused to change her work.

Act I is rife with the humor that the veteran actors, Sheldon, Millie and Wiletta set up to be mined throughout until in Act II, Wiletta has “had it.” The requisite subtle irony to soft peddle racism no longer appeals because she wants to be a great actress and the lies of bigotry are getting in the way. When Al Manners attempts to tell her how to be “natural” and not “think,” and that by thinking, she doesn’t “get” the character, Wiletta boils with rage as he demeans her talent. And that anger spills over when she questions Manners about her character’s reactions in a scene when she is trying to protect her son from a lynch mob. The mother’s response and the son’s response is inauthentic, fake, and indeed, kowtows to white supremacists. The implication of her questions is clear.

(L to R): Jessica Frances Dukes, LaChanze, Trouble in Mind (Joan Marcus)

When LaChanze’s Wiletta aptly confronts Zegen’s Manners about this, the explosion is inevitable. Manners walks away throwing the production in jeopardy and the other actors who need the money for the entire run are thrown into a tailspin. Trouble in Mind concludes in uncertainty. Though Wiletta took a stand confronting the director in the hope of evolving the play into an authentic rendering, only she is satisfied. For her it is worth it even if she destroys her career, which we understand by the end is meaningless if she, herself, can’t be who she really is. Childress ends with hope: Wiletta recites Psalm 133 to Henry (the excellent Simon Jones) as a spiritual petition and prayer for things to be better in the future.

Thus, we understand what happens if a black actor even dares to question the power structure represented by Manners; it’s potentially over. The play within a play ends but Wilette/Childress goes on. It is a prescient twist upon an ironic twist considering that it took 66 years for the indictment of Broadway’s white power structure to finally be presented by the Roundabout with Trouble in Mind. What’s even more ironic is that the message still pertains.

To conclude. Last night, I sat next to an experienced actor and his wife, a Rutgers professor and casting director. Both affirmed that “getting a play produced” is the most difficult and heart-wrenching process in theater today. Childress indicates some of the reasons in her amazing work which targets racism, chauvinism, and sexism. Importantly, her timeless play’s themes relate to every “ism” that one might lay bare about human nature and oppression in the arts, especially by those who exploit creatives to gain the highest profits, while starving the artistic team, playwrights, actors. This has been especially egregious for those of color.

Danielle Campbell, Michael Zegen in Trouble in Mind (Joan Marcus)

Sadly, this bigotry and discrimination is allegedly done for the sake of “entertainment.” The result is mediocrity and a fear of novel, original work. Instead, there is a steady repetition of old standby revivals or shows created from blockbuster films; there are few quality dramas or even musical productions. What has been sacrificed, as Trouble in Mind reveals, is the paramount live medium to touch lives. stir our humanity, bring community, and create a better society has dimmed and there is no Tinker Bell to come along and revive it, thus far. This is doubly so during the pandemic in the fall season of 2021.

Trouble in Mind is a step in the right direction, however. Bravo to Roundabout to stage it.

Kudos to the additional actors who made this production sing with truth and humor. Alex Mickiewicz as Eddie Fenton and Don Stephenson as Bill O’Wray. Final shout outs go to Arnulfo Maldonado (set design) Emilio Sosa (costume design) Kathy A. Perkins (lighting design) Dan Moses Schreier (sound design) and the other creatives. You don’t want to miss the fine cast, Childress’ priceless, sharp wit and this long awaited Broadway premiere. For tickets and times go to their website CLICK HERE.

‘A Christmas Carol’ a Gorgeous Re-birthing of the Dickens Treasure, on Broadway, Starring Campbell Scott, Andrea Martin, LaChanze

The Cast, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

The Cast of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

If you go to the Lyceum Theatre this holiday season, you will experience a haven of love filled with joy, good will and lots of treats (clementines and Tate’s chocolate chip miniatures passed out to the hungry audience right before the performance). What an exceptional re-vitalization of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol this production is.

The uplifting classic about the human ability to change one’s character from grasping restriction to one of generosity and love is one we need to revisit as often as possible in this time of political divisiveness and “un-newsworthy” acts of cruelty, malice and social ill will. The production is a subtle call to arms, a reminder of our choices. If we must reveal traits, why not manifest the spiritual attributes of goodness and kindness to energize our minds and hearts toward the positive. Bah Humbug with negativity! The glass should and must be half-full and eventually, it just might be overflowing. All things are possible to those who believe.

hris Hoch, Campbell Scott, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

(L to R): Chris Hoch, Campbell Scott in ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

Mind you this idea is never “preached” in this fabulous, sonorous production. But these themes are so infused by the characters, the story-line, the lyrically rendered traditional Christmas carols that waft in and out between bits and pieces of choral story telling, we are ever-so-gently wrapped in their meanings like a glorious present which we are encouraged to “pass on to others.” For those who see the production, and you must to fully appreciate this novel conception of a seasonal delight, you will understand how “pass it on to others, pass it forward,” becomes a prominent and sage aphorism, especially in Act II.

Campbell Scott, Dashiell Eaves, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

(L to R): Campbell Scott, Dashielle Eaves, ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

The production which was first presented in London at The Old Vic is currently in its third season there. It is understandable why it is a smash favorite. Will it return next year in New York City as it most likely will in London? Please! Adapted by Jack Thorne with an intriguing design, tenor and texture by a laudatory creative team, the craggy penurious, scoundrel Scrooge portrayed with power and emotional range by Campbell Scott has rarely been given such a send-off.

From costumes to staging to lighting and sound, this is a spiritual manifestation of dreams and possibilities which spark one’s imagination and send chills down our spines. From the first appearance of Jacob Marley dragging chains and bondages up from infernal regions and recriminations, to the subsequent howling of the winds and fog mists swirling diabolically to the deep tonal registers of darkness, this is indeed, first and last “A Ghost Story of Christmas,” Dickens very own handle characterizing his most famous work.

Andrea Martin, A Christmas Carol, Matthew Warchus, Jack Thorne, An Old Vic Production

Andrea Martin as the Ghost of Christmas Past, ‘A Christmas Carol,’by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne,’ directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

Before we meet the protagonist, hear/see his story, the cast shares the cookie and fruit favors and sings in black long coats and top hats with bells ringing a melodic symphony of cheer, whose message clearly, beautifully resounds with grace and humor. Then Scrooge, the gruff, malcontent stomps into the scene in the appropriate Victorian dress of the counting house with white, disarrayed whiskers and shocked out hair. Campbell Scott steps into the soul of this misanthropist who despises Christmas and all it means until ghosts haunt him and he transforms into an innocent child as the light of wonder fills his spirit.

Campbell Scott, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

Campbell Scott in, ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

Scott takes a version of a caricature we’ve all come to appreciate and authenticates him as a live individual. I couldn’t help but equate him with some political caricatures of our nation with the hope that they, too, may change, come to life and fill out as generous recondite human beings. But Scott’s Scrooge has the chief driver of transformation propelling him along: guilt, shame and remorse and the inclination to apologize and want to be a better person. Others do love him despite himself and most probably have prayed and blessed him along his darkened way. Thus, he comes to the end of himself on a ghostly evening “the night before Christmas.”

Campbell Scott, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

Campbell Scott in, ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

When the Ghost of Christmas Past visits him (the illustrious, quaintly humorous and festively dressed Andrea Martin) we understand the reasons why Scrooge’s present is what it is and un-examined lump of coal which the ghosts put under intense heat and guilty pressure.

Nevertheless, Martin’s ghost reveals Scrooge’s younger days as he looks on poignantly amazed. The exuberance of his childhood, the longing not to be alone and the love are present. He loves Belle (the fine Sarah Hunt) but this love becomes bottled up in dreams of ambition to create a grand lifestyle for her. Of course these fade and became lost as Scrooge allows money to erect itself into an all-consuming devouring monstrosity; there is never enough; Scrooge is never rich enough for himself, though Belle would have married a man of her father’s station because she loves him and as he later finds out, still does love him.

Campbell Scott, LaChanze, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

Campbell Scott, LaChanze in ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

The Ghost of Christmas Present enters in the same clouded mist and the foreboding is heightened as LaChanze with ironic tone and admonition ringing throughout her carriage comes to visit. Her outfit is the same as the Ghost of Christmas Past in a festive floral pattern. But her distinguishing feature remains the sunglasses; interpret them as you will. LaChanze manages to be cool and witty in the part; the sunglasses are a nice touch.

With her visit Scott’s Scrooge has begun his subtle transformation. If you blink, you will miss the bends in the turning points of his change. Gradually, he loses his anger, sullenness, recalcitrance, emotional unkemptness and judgmental superiority. Not only does he go with her willingly, he shows his aptitude to learn about himself. After all, didn’t Marley warn him of three visitations for the sole reason of forestalling his friend and kindred mammonish spirit the horrors of Marley’s eternal damnation?

Campbell Scott, The Company, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

Campbell Scott and The Company of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

The mood shifts of the ghostly hauntings are like whispers, acute and filled with mystery. The choral numbers of various carols enhance the ghostly visits. The lamps deck the ballustrade, festoon the stage and theater ceiling suspended by long and short chains. The design is just spectacularly suggestive of the time and place, themes of light and dark, redemption and damnation. Rob Howell (set and costume design) Hugh Vanstone (lighting design) Simon Baker (sound design) and Christopher Nightingale (composer/orchestrator/arranger) especially have secured Matthew Warchus’ vision of A Christmas Carol as floating through the realms between the material and ethereal worlds. It is this symbolic vision that gives credence to otherworldly consciousness as one of the unspoken ghosts that visits Scrooge and promotes his final transformation having come back from a deadened heart, mind and soul.

Campbell Scott, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

Campbell Scott in ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

Without giving too much away, the Second Act shines figuratively and manifestly as the light embraces Scrooge when the Ghost of Christmas Future, in a surprising twist, his sister Jess (Hannah Elless) notes what could be his future. Not exactly in keeping with the tenor and atmosphere of the Act One, nevertheless, Act Two emphasizes not the horrors and fear of a possibly doomed soul, but the joy, happiness and innocence of a reclaimed one.

Sarah Hunt, Campbell Scott, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus, an Old Vic Production

Sarah Hunt, Campbell Scott in ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

If this is what it means to be “Born Again,” I’ll embrace it! Campbell Scott rebirths a nightmarish man into a lovely individual whose child-like wonder effuses love and generosity. His performance is moment to moment and the transformation is made complete in “the twinkling of an eye,” and “at the last trump!” This is his redemption through resurrection. And we adore Scrooge’s happiness and good will and find ourselves laughing and crying at his exuberance. Somewhere tucked in the background did I hear “O Holy Night” at these bright, shining moments? Perhaps.

Andrea Martin, LaChanze, Campbell Scott, Rachel Prather, A Christmas Carol, Broadway, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

(background L to R:) Andrea Martin, LaChanze, Rachel Prather, (foreground) Campbell Scott, ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

Matthew Warchus’ staging making use of the entire theater even up to the second balcony. This is captivating. And his involvement of the audience making this experience wholly interactive is just grand. I adored the themes: the reigning/snowing down of blessings on the audience, the abundance and prosperity offered by Scrooge’s resurrected spirit that the audience gets to pass along as part of the festivities and much, much more.

I daresay, perhaps agnostics and atheists will approve of this version because it is heartfelt, human and doesn’t have a whiff of sanctimonious clap trap or religious institutionalism anywhere near it. And as for the commercialism of Christmas? The production explodes it at the first appearance of the cast in top hats and Victorian long coats. Thank goodness. Indeed, Thorne, Warchus and the creative team reveal their profound understanding of Dickens’ themes elevating this “haunting” story to the classic it is. The production in breathtaking array exemplifies why A Christmas Carol will resonate always.

See this for the spectacular interactive staging, lighting design, director’s vision, spiritual beauty, acting, Campbell Scott’s Scrooge-transformation, fabulously interwoven-in-the-narrative Christmas carols sung and played like you’ve never experienced before. And see it for the mysterious, otherworldly enchantments and too much to repeat here, not the least of which are the clementines. With special kudos to those not mentioned before: Lizzi Gee (movement) Howard Joines (music coordinator) Campbel Young Assoiates (wigs, hair, make-up design) Michael Gacetta.

A Christmas Carol runs at the Lyceum Theatre (149 West 45th Street) with one intermission. For tickets and times to this must see LIMITED ENGAGEMENT, CLICK HERE.  You will be happy you did.

 

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‘The Secret Life of Bees,’ a Heartfelt Musical Adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s Titular Novel

Elizabeth Teeter, Manoel Felciano, The Secret Life of Bees, Lynn Nottage, Duncan Sheik, Susan Birkenhead, Sue Monk Kidd, Sam Gold Atlantic Theater Company

(L to R): )Elizabeth Teeter and Manoel Felciano in ‘The Secret Life of Bees,’ bOok by Lynn Nottage, Music by Duncan Sheik, Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, based on Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, directed by Sam Gold (Ahron R. Foster)

The World Premiere of The Secret Life of Bees (Book by Lynn Nottage, Music by Duncan Sheik,  Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead) spins Sue Monk Kidd’s best-selling novel into “A River of Melting Sun,” a metaphor for love, sweetness and redemption that is established in the opening lyrical musical number. Sung by the ensemble who elicit the audience to join them on a mythic and personal a journey they might wish to take, the song reinforces primary themes. These ripple throughout the story of Rosaleen (a sensational Saycon Sengbloh) and the troubled heart-broken Lily (Elizabeth Teeter’s lyrical voice is perfect for the role) both of whom must reconcile the wounds from their motherless childhood that threaten to destroy them.

The production directed by Sam Gold (Fun Home) is uniquely metaphysical. The director has chosen to keep the staging and set design (Mimi Lien) illustratively spiritual, functionally minimalistic and suggestive. The characters. pull out the props from the back wall use them to reflect and evoke events as they conduct the action organically.  The book melds together the music and lyrics with characterizations. Sheik’s music with Birkenhead’s lyrics are sensitively drawn and vibrantly anointed in a mix of styles (gospel, blues, ballads, rock and pop pieces). This musical inspires and thrills.

 The Secret Life of Bees, Lynn Nottage, Duncan Sheik, Susan Birkenhead, Sue Monk Kidd, Sam Gold Atlantic Theater Company

The company of ‘The Secret Life of Bees,’ Book by Lynn Nottage, Music by Duncan Sheik, Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, based on Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, directed by Sam Gold (Ahron R. Foster)

Ultimately, the healing power of many of the melodies, infused by the gorgeously, heady voices of the inimitable LaChanze (August Boatwright) Saycon Sengbloh (Rosaleen) Elizabeth Teeter (Lily) Eisa Davis (June) and Anastacia McCleskey (June) become the golden threads that provoke us to understanding that we too can share in “The Secret Life of Bees” and be purveyors of the honey of joy, moving down our own byways of life impacting others positively within our own sphere of influence.

The symbolism in the “A River of Melting Sun” has a myriad of layers as evocative as the messages in this adaptation enhanced with the emotionalism of Sheik’s score and veteran Birkenhead’s stirring lyrics. On one level the melting sun represents the golden honey that expert beekeeper August Boatwright (LaChanze) draws from hundreds of bee hives which is processed into the pure, amber sweetness from which she and her sisters, the broken-hearted May, and the hypercritical, austere June make their  living in the county around Tiburon, South Carolina.

LaChanze, The Secret Life of Bees, Lynn Nottage, Duncan Sheik, Susan Birkenhead, Sue Monk Kidd, Sam Gold Atlantic Theater Company

(L to R): LaChanze, Elizabeth Teeter in ‘The Secret Life of Bees,’ Book by Lynn Nottage, Music by Duncan Sheik, Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, based on Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, directed by Sam Gold (Ahron R. Foster)

The melting sun also alludes to the mysterious power of sunlight that impacts the bees before and after they gather the pollen from the flowers whose plants, require the radiant rays’ energy to blossom and lure their pollinators to complete the vital rhythmic cycle of propagation that has persisted for thousands of years.

As the bees follow the rhythms of nature, so do the characters. The bee puppets shimmering in the expert lighting against the dark backdrop are effective, especially accompanied with the lyrical, flowing “bee theme.” In this musical as in the novel, both bees and humans are symbolic counterparts. Both focus on and require support from (their bee queen, the Black Madonna, Mother Mary). The honey, the bees produce for themselves and their queen; the honey represents the strength and love as well as the product central to August’s business. Importantly, the honey is the “sunlight” theme of the underlying love, unity, equanimity and community that sustains life. Without these elements, human beings will wither and die from displacement, isolation, disunity and emotional malnutrition. The same applies for the bee colonies.

Rosaleen and Lily are amazed and learn from the community of healing love from which the praying, spiritual Daughters of Mary find sustenance in, despite an oppressive, bigoted, hateful culture. Without their unity and faith there would be a return to misery, torment and depression, the likes of which May experiences and must continually be lifted away from. The metaphor of melting sun also alludes to the heat/warmth/enlightenment/encouragement/hope/faith extended by August and the Daughters of Mary to the broader community. This symbolic “melting sun” is received by Rosaleen and Lily after the runaways allow faith to transform their souls and heal their brokenness through love and peace.

 The Secret Life of Bees, LaChanze, Anastacia McCleskey, Lynn Nottage, Duncan Sheik, Susan Birkenhead, Sue Monk Kidd, Sam Gold Atlantic Theater Company

(L to R): LaChanze, Anastacia McCleskey and the company of ‘Secret Life of Bees,’ Book by Lynn Nottage, Music by Duncan Sheik, Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, based on Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, directed by Sam Gold (Ahron R. Foster)

Nottage’s book serves to frame the arc of development, elucidate the characterizations and manifest the themes. Cleverly, she employs a delicate, slim, suggestive rendering. She quickly establishes the setting as 1964, South Carolina. For those unfamiliar with the history, we learn through radio announcements salient news details; these news events are tied to the action. Those familiar with the Civil Rights Movement, will recall the year was a time of roiling fury for Southern white supremacists who opposed the passage of President Johnson’s Voting Rights Act and retaliated with bombings and killings to spread fear and stop blacks from registering to vote.

This social and cultural backdrop magnifies the conflicts for Lily, the confused white teenager who sings “The Girl Who Killed Her Mother” and Rosaleen who works for Lily’s father T-Ray and who intends to vote (“Sign My Name.”) challenging racist bullies who have maintained their oppressive, genocidal power structure since Plessy v. Ferguson in a Jim Crow South. During the musical, we learn that Rosaleen and Lily have been abandoned by their mothers and suffer from emotional and spiritual traumas that destroy their confidence and wholeness so they cannot progress.

Saycon Sengbloh,The Secret Life of Bees, Lynn Nottage, Duncan Sheik, Susan Birkenhead, Sue Monk Kidd, Sam Gold Atlantic Theater Company

Saycon Sengbloh in ‘The Secret Life of Bees,’ Book by Lynn Nottage, Music by Duncan Sheik, Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, based on Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, directed by Sam Gold (Ahron R. Foster)

Escalating conflicts force Lily and Rosaleen to take the risk of running away together. Tired of her father’s physical and emotional abuse, and in her quest for the truth about her mother who has died, Lily solicits Rosaleen’s companionship and they leave Sylvan without T-Ray’s permission. Manoel Felciano as T-Ray aptly delivers the brutish, hurtful father convincingly.

They follow the only clue Lily has about her mother’s past, a paper honey label stamped with a Black Madonna with the printed location of Tiburon, South Carolina. Though tired and worn, they believe and hope in their future (“Better Than This”). For feisty Rosaleen who spit on a red-neck’s shoe when he prevented her from registering to vote after she brings down the house with “Sign My Name,” escape may lead to power. For Lily escape means the freedom to seek her mother’s identity away from the gnawing terrors of a childhood event that is too traumatic to remember. Her lack of memory is why T-Ray opaquely tortures her about it without being entirely truthful.

Elizabeth Teeter, LaChanze, The Secret Life of Bees, Lynn Nottage, Duncan Sheik, Susan Birkenhead, Sue Monk Kidd, Sam Gold Atlantic Theater Company

(L to R): LaChanze, Elizabeth Teeter in ‘The Secret Life of Bees,’ Book by Lynn Nottage, Music by Duncan Sheik, Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, based on Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, directed by Sam Gold (Ahron R. Foster)

Rosaleen’s and Lily’s travels lead them to the mysterious, striking, holy scene, a ritualized church service of dance and song that is a powerful prayer to Mother Mary (a Black Madonna carved in driftwood). The Black Madonna is a contact point of faith, enlightenment and love. The anointed song “Tek A Hol A My Soul” is rhythmic and profound. It thrums with the pulsation of sweeping currents that uplift and energize the Daughters of Mary (ensemble and the sisters) and Neil (a heartfelt, humorous, sensitive portrayal by Nathaniel Stampley). Neil is a like-minded “brother”who prays and sings with them; he is also the principal of the school where June teaches. The song is a soul shaker, just fabulous in providing the dramatic focus from which the action centralizes.

When the singers (August, June, May, Neil, Queenie, Sugar Girl, Violet, Neil) see Rosaleen and Lily are enthralled, August (she represents the Queen Mother, the educated entrepreneur whose encouragement and wisdom undergirds the community of educated black women) invites them to work for room and board. The ensemble sings “The Secret Life of Bees,” the thematic mantra which represents the unity of all things through love, hope and decency, and all that is life affirming and purposeful, if one has the eyes to see and the ears to hear the secrets/mysteries to obtain the honey goodness.

Rosaleen and Lily gratefully accept the invitation and in exchange for lodging, they assist with the housework and beekeeping. As they gradually become a part of the family, they confront their troubles and embrace peace and self-love through August’s nurturing. This becomes problematic for Lily because of June’s skepticism about taking in a white girl who obviously will bring trouble into their sanctuary. Lily must overcome June’s negative attitude with the help/love of August and her own soul searching and prayers to Mother Mary. She grows in empathy toward the broken-hearted May (the golden voiced Anastacia Mcleskey) who also has gone through a terrorizing, event.  In the lovely “Frogs and Fireflies” and they encourage one another

Elizabeth Teeter, Anastacia McCleskey, The Secret Life of Bees, Lynn Nottage, Duncan Sheik, Susan Birkenhead, Sue Monk Kidd, Sam Gold Atlantic Theater Company

(L to R): Anastacia McCleskey, Elizabeth Teeter in ‘The Secret Life of Bees,’ Book by Lynn Nottage, Music by Duncan Sheik, Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, based on Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, directed by Sam Gold (Ahron R. Foster)

Rosaleen’s and Lily’s arrival at the farm is a major turning point in which the interactions between and among May, June and August entertain and teach us about the women’s industry, resourcefulness and determination to strive in a culture that would otherwise annihilate their souls and identities. LaChance’s August (accent on the second syllable means sage) is spot-on brilliant. She delivers a nuanced performance that drips with wisdom, steadfastness, inner mystical knowledge and power through inner peace. Her portrayal is transcendent. She sets the tone for the metaphysical underpinnings, revelations and healings which might not be gleaned if one is “scientifically,” empirically-minded. Her singing is absolutely grand.

Saycon Sengbloh is a whirlwind, likable, effusive and joyful as Rosaleen, a true overcomer. Her chiding Lily’s selfishness into true friendship in “All about You,” is superbly, forcefully delivered. Her other solo “Who Knew?” as she receives grace and heals her sorrows is another highpoint of the production in its development of her character that makes crystalline sense.

Her white counterpart in “becoming,” Lily, is her equal in redemption after Zachary (the adorable Brett Gray and Lily’s potential love interest) has been found alive. When he and Lily are pulled over and officers brutalize Zachary and arrest him for nothing, he nearly loses his life, but for the help of a white client of August, who wields power in the county. The currency of this scene is painful to watch considering how many times such unjust violence spilled from the past into today and it is ongoing. Many times the outcome is not as it is in the play; the victim is tortured, abused and murdered with impunity. The Daughters of Mary understand what is at stake and do all they can to free the innocent Zachary.

The Secret Life of Bees, Lynn Nottage, Duncan Sheik, Susan Birkenhead, Sue Monk Kidd, Sam Gold Atlantic Theater Company, Eisa Davis, Nathaniel Stampley,

Eisa Davis, Nathaniel Stampley ‘The Secret Life of Bees,’ Book by Lynn Nottage, Music by Duncan Sheik, Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, based on Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, directed by Sam Gold (Ahron R. Foster)

That Lily importunes Mother Mary and has a conversion experience praying for Zachary is an indication of her growth away from selfishness toward healing and self-love. In this powerful scene, she activates the substance of her own faith as it joins with the Daughters of Mary who also pray for Zachary’s return. However, any hope she may have to be with Zachary will never be realized as long as the atmosphere of hatred and injustice is an entrenched, “legal” social more.

Brett Gray’s Zachary “rocks it” with Lily in two musical numbers which show their bonds: “Fifty-Five Fairlane,” and “What Do You Love?” Their exuberance in the first and their sweetness in the second provide a side story of budding love which avoids the syrupy and remains authentic. The second love story, between Neil (Nathaniel Stampley) and June (Eisa Davis) is LOL hysterical as Neil persists in wooing June and she rejects him a whopping number of times out of fear of being hurt again as she was before. “Marry Me” is just fabulous. The men in the play empathize with Neil and chortled around me at the humor and were tense at June’s answers. This is no spoiler alert; you will have to see the musical to find out if June and Neil join forces. And you will have to see it to discover what happens when T-Ray shows up to confront Lily about her mother’s death to take her back home.

The Secret Life of Bees is an ethereal, spiritual adaptation with little spectacle of the type that “dazzles” and then is easily forgotten. It is an evocative and suggestive view of a time that is near timeless as it reflects the same horrific events that are happening today (voter suppression, police brutality, racial abuse, women’s oppression). But the adaptation carefully elicits the substance of faith and its power evidenced in a mystical group of educated, “sisters” and a “brother” who have found a way to negotiate the hellish genocidal racists and best them beyond “religiosity” and a form of godliness that has no power. Nottage’s selection of events in the style she’s chosen is right on as is Sheik’s music and Birkenhead’s lyrics, aptly shepherded by Sam Gold.

Kudos to the company, and to the creative artists Chris Walker (choreography) Dede Ayite (costumes) Jane Cox (lights) Dan Moses Schreier (sound) AchesonWalsh Studios (puppets) Jason Hart (music director) Antoine Silverman (music contractor) Duncan Sheik & John Clancy (orchestrations) Jason Hart (vocal arrangements) Cookie Jordan (hair, makeup & special effects) UnkleDave’s Fight House (fight director).

This must see musical production runs with one intermission at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (West 20th Street) until 21 July. It should be extended or another venue found. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.

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