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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

The Women of Brewster Place

Also see Susan's review of Redshirts

The Women of Brewster Place
Tijuana T. Ricks, Terry Burrell, Cheryl Alexander, Shelley Thomas, Tina Fabrique and Marva Hicks
The Women of Brewster Place, the musical receiving its premiere production at Washington's Arena Stage, benefits from a cast of strong and powerful singing actresses under the focused direction of Molly Smith. Considered a plot-driven drama rather than a series of loosely connected episodes, it is less successful.

Tim Acito created the book, music and lyrics for the work, based on Gloria Naylor's novel of African-American women struggling to triumph in a dead-end housing project in 1975. Each of the seven characters has a personal journey, and the problem is the absence of an overall through line: one character disappears after tragedy strikes her, while the ones who dominate the second act don't appear until after intermission.

Mattie (the majestic Tina Fabrique) is the heart of Brewster Place, a hard-working woman holding on through her faith in God and sheer determination. Her niece Lucielia (Shelley Thomas) is raising a child with little help from the father. High-living, flashy Etta Mae (Marva Hicks) goes from man to man, never finding what she wants or needs. Kiswana (Monique L. Midgette), an aspiring black radical, wants to remake Brewster Place on her way to shaking up the world. Cora Lee (Tijuana T. Ricks) is depressed, exhausted and trying to raise seven children on her own. The relationship between Lorraine (Harriett D. Foy), a teacher, and Tee (Suzzanne Douglas), a city employee, shocks the other women, especially mean-spirited busybody Sophie (Cheryl Alexander).

As that synopsis suggests, this musical has a lot maybe too much going on in its two and a half hours. Add the sense of menace and despair hovering over the proceedings, symbolized by the wall that isolates the neighborhood from the surrounding area, and The Women of Brewster Place is frequently difficult to digest.

Acito's score tends to be strongest in character-driven solos, such as Kiswana's here-I-am number, in which she declares her intent to "bring peace to the world, by force if I must," and Lorraine's depiction of one frenzied day at school. Others bring small moments to life, as when righteous Mattie and good-time Etta Mae bond over a Billie Holiday record, or when Kiswana's visiting upper-middle-class mother (Terry Burrell) recounts some family history. And for just plain fun, there's the giddy disco version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" featuring fairies in glitter and enormous white Afro wigs. But, as these examples show, the work is still pieces rather than a coherent whole, despite the fervent efforts of the entire cast.

Anne Patterson's scenic design of moving walls, along with Michael Gilliam's lighting and Adam Larsen's projections, do a good job of conjuring up a neighborhood out of minimalist elements. But Paul Tazewell's costumes bring the 1970s back to life with wit and without overstatement: women really did wear dashikis with cut-off jeans, paisley palazzo pants, and floor-length macramé vests over hot pants, much as they may want to forget they did.

Arena Stage
The Women of Brewster Place
October 19th December 9th
Book, music and lyrics by Tim Acito
Based on the novel by Gloria Naylor
Sophie/Ensemble: Cheryl Alexander
Mrs. Browne/Ensemble: Terry Burrell
Tee/Ensemble: Suzzanne Douglas
Mattie: Tina Fabrique
Lorraine/Ensemble: Harriett D. Foy
Wanda/Ensemble: Eleasha Gamble
Etta Mae: Marva Hicks
Kiswana: Monique L. Midgette
Cora Lee: Tijuana T. Ricks
Lucielia: Shelley Thomas
Directed by Molly Smith
Choreography by Kenneth L. Roberson
Music direction by William Foster McDaniel
Kreeger Theater, Arena Stage, Sixth and Maine avenues S.W.
Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or www.arenastage.org


-- Susan Berlin


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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