part of the
Midtown International Theatre Festival
The societal indignities suffered by women and the exploitation of blacks at white hands are such powerful subjects to the American psyche that’s it not surprising they keep turning up as the focal points of musicals ranging from Show Boat to Dreamgirls to Hairspray and beyond. But those three shows, and others that deal with one or both of those timeless topics, share one crucial quality: a story that makes them feel essential rather than insipid. The same cannot be said of the well-intentioned but labored Sistas: The Musical, which is currently playing at the June Havoc Theatre as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival.
The conceit here, as developed by librettist Dr. Dorothy Marcic and staged by Kenneth Ferrone, is that contemporary black women have been defined, almost to a fault, by the music they’ve written or sung over the last century. When a group of five, all loosely within the same family (everyone is someone else’s mother, daughter, sister, or cousin, either by blood or by marriage), gather in the attic of their recently deceased grandmother to sort through her possessions and determine what song to sing at her Baptist memorial service that evening, they’re all forced to confront how far their personal movement has come over the previous hundred years, and how it’s affected them personally — or how it hasn’t.
The new matriarch, Simone (Gayle Samuels), learned everything she knows from her trailblazing parents, and became the first woman in the family to graduate from college — she’s let nothing, not even being walked out on by her husband, stand in her way. Roberta (Jennifer Fouche) sees everything through the lens of oppression, and even positive racial advances as minor stumbles within a crushing overall struggle; she’s also a committed atheist who can’t stand how Gloria (Angela K. Thomas) is so dependent on God and intent on seeing Grandma remembered through gospel. Heather (Briana Davis), who’s married to Roberta’s cousin, is a hardcore feminist apparently in need of schooling as to why the battles fought by blacks were worse than those fought by women in general — and, oh yeah, she’s white.
All four see it as their mission to inform Simone’s daughter, Tamika (Patrice Covington), who’s willfully ignorant of most music written before 1990, of her heritage as it’s been expressed through song — which of course they do in the now-typical style of the jukebox musical, which lets each woman express herself without actually expressing anything. Simone wails through “Stormy Weather” and “I Will Survive” as tributes to her initial subservience and ultimate independence, Gloria leads a rave-up of “Oh Happy Day,” and Roberta declares her much-beloved self-reliance through tunes like “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.” They all manage to come together for an elaborate Motown tribute (complete with beaded gowns that appear out of nowhere) and to marvel at the accomplishments of Mahalia Jackson, Kate Smith, Ma Rainey, and others before finally discovering that they draw the majority of their strength from the same place their forebears always did: each other.
Dr. Marcic, who’s also a professor at Columbia, specializes in writing just this kind of self-help songbook show, and has already turned out at least two with titles that tell you everything: RESPECT: The Musical Journey of Women, and What I Did For Love!. (She also wrote the songs for last year’s original Fringe Festival show, Terms of Dismemberment.) But she’s more talented at sketching out her story than fleshing it out: The plot is so hackneyed, and the characters so contrived (you find yourself counting the minutes until Roberta and Gloria’s big fight — and then counting the seconds until their inevitable reconciliation), you don’t end up learning anything you didn’t already know. (This is a fundamental, and practically unresolvable, storytelling issue with jukebox musicals in general.)
From a production standpoint, there’s the predictable problem that these five women are forced to sing numbers originated by iconic groups like The Supremes and The Shirelles, and powerful personalities like Billie Holliday and Bessie Smith, but don’t remotely compare to them in terms of either voice or tenacity. All five women try their hardest, with Samuels and Fouche best overcoming the hurdles in front of them, and odd-woman-out Davis cannily making Heather’s bewilderment into a virtue the script itself probably wouldn’t appreciate. Ferrone’s staging and Lauren Lim-Jackson’s choreography are efficient but forgettable, much like the show itself.
The show works so hard to tell its strained story, in fact, that before long it starts feeling like a revue with debilitating delusions of grandeur — as if it wants to sing rather than speak, but is afraid it won’t make its Big Points if it does. Even that can work when the material is right: Ain’t Misbehavin’ somehow manages to sizzle, and even wrangle basic narrative and character through lines, with barely a word of recognizable dialogue. It can be done, but it requires a leap of faith almost as great as the one that the family in Sistas so intently and ineffectively celebrates.
Sistas: The Musical