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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Sheila's Day: Musical Journeys on the
Road to Freedom and Equality

Also see Bob's review of The Housewives of Manheim

Concluding a 30th anniversary revival season of three of its finest productions, the Crossroads Theatre Company is currently presenting a delightful 20th Anniversary production of Sheila's Day, a musical cross-cultural celebration of the human spirit.

Twenty years ago, artistic director Ricardo Kahn brought artists and actors from South Africa to Crossroads where, in residence with their American counterparts, they developed Sheila's Day. The title refers to the name by which the ruling class white women (being too lazy and disrespectful to learn their native names) commonly addressed their female domestic workers and the gathering together of these women on Thursday, their one day off, to bond and exchange stories of their experiences. These workers are gathered before us for the theatrical Sheila's Day which we have the privilege of visiting.

The basic narratives are the intercut histories of two women, who, beginning in the 1950s, journey to seek their futures. Qedusizi, a Zulu, comes to Soweto and Johannesburg in the 1950s where she works as a domestic and struggles to become a teacher. Ruby Lee, a Baptist from Marion, Georgia, travels to Montgomery, Alabama and throughout the South where she struggles to find her place in the world.

There is a sly and witty, tongue-in-cheek quality to the story telling, for, in their respective journeys, Qedusizi and Ruby Lee unintentionally become observers to and are drawn into important milestone events in the struggles of their people for freedom and equality. These events throw a monkey wrench into their immediate plans. A women's protest in Pretoria against extending pass requirements to women and the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott cost them their jobs. However, the hope and pride which these actions engender in these women far outweigh any temporary personal setbacks. Tragedy and brutality are also part of the mosaic. However, most prevalent is the joyful knowledge both of the women on stage and the theatergoer is that "the Sheilas of the world collectively have the power to change the world," and, I would add, have done so.

Integral to and an extension of the stories recounted here is an extensive musical palette which includes African chants (if you liked Lebo M's African chants and melodies for Broadway's The Lion King, you will surely like these) and songs, protest songs, gospel songs, spirituals ("His Eye Is on the Sparrow"), and blues songs. The singing is a cappella. The actors provide rhythmic accompaniment on African drums (initially) and by clapping, foot stomping and finger snapping. Ann Duquesnay is a most engaging, down to earth Ruby Lee. It is a pleasure to hear her powerful and distinctive singing without an overly amplified orchestra. Still, one or two instrumentalists for some of the songs would further enrich the work. Thuli Dumakude's Qedusizi is more subdued, quietly intense. In keeping with her character, Dumakude's fine singing is also intense, but more lyrical in style.

In addition to portraying the women being honored here, the balance of the cast portray most effectively in agit-prop, satiric style, judges, soldiers, prison guards, bureaucrats, white housewives, church ladies and more. Ashley Bryant, Uzo Aduba, Erin Cherry, Wendy Lynette Fox, Chantal Jean Pierre, Me'Lisa Sellers and Shelley Thomas each make strong contributions, vocally and dramatically.

Director Ricardo Khan's production hits all the right notes as it provides all the empathy and joy which makes Sheila's Day special. His staging is based in part upon the original staging of Mbongeni Ngema. The author credits are "conceived and written by Duma Ndlovu, co-created by Ngema, with additional material by Ebony Jo-Ann" (the original Ruby Lee).

It is often difficult to interest children in their cultural legacy. Therefore, any parent interested in passing along knowledge and pride of African and African-American culture and history to their children will not want to pass up this wonderful opportunity to do so.

Sheila's Day continues performances (Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8 p.m. / Saturday, Sunday 3 p.m.) through May 3, 2009 at the Crossroads Theatre Company, 7 Livingston Ave,, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. Telephone: 732-545-8100; online: www.CrossroadsTheatreCompany.org.

Sheila's Day conceived and written by Duma Ndlovu; co-created by Mbongeni Ngema; additional material by Ebony Jo-Ann; directed by Ricardo Khan

Cast: Thuli Dumakude (Qedusizi); Ann Duquesnay (Ruby Lee)
Ensemble: Ashley Bryant; Uzo Aduba; Erin Cherry: Wendy Lynette Fox; Chantal Jean Pierre: Me'Lisa Sellers; Shelley Thomas


Be sure to Check the current schedule for theatre in New Jersey


- Bob Rendell



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