Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Gun & Powder
Signature Theatre
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Also see Susan's report on the 2020 Helen Hayes Awards Nominations

Solea Pfeiffer and Emmy Raver-Lampman
Photo by Cameron Whitman
Gun & Powder, the latest world premiere musical at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, is a total delight. The soulful songs by Angelica Chéri (book and lyrics) and Ross Baum (music), sung by a richly talented cast, elevate an engaging story about self-determination and the demands of heritage.

Chéri was inspired by family folklore about her great-great-aunts, Mary and Martha Clarke, very light-skinned African-American women in late 19th-century Texas who passed for white in that segregated time and place. As no two stories she heard were the same, she said, she decided to tell her own version, complete with both love and (minimal) violence.

Director Robert O'Hara, recently noted for his work on the button-pushing Slave Play on Broadway, smoothly navigates a world where people buy into stereotypes because they have never had to look beneath the surface. This works both ways: Mary (Solea Pfeiffer) and Martha (Emmy Raver-Lampman) are strangers to the society they would like to enter and must learn to fit in as they go.

On Jason Sherwood's set, mostly a worn and crumpled-looking backdrop enhanced with projections by Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson and a few individual pieces of scenery, Chéri and Baum weave a story of how fraternal twins Mary and Martha work alongside their righteous mother Tallulah (Marva Hicks) as sharecroppers on a Texas farm. Slavery may have ended with the Civil War, the workers note, but the economics of sharecropping kept poor African Americans in chains.

Supported by the gorgeous a cappella harmonies of a seven-member chorus billed as "Kinfolk," Mary and Martha leave home (Byron Easley's "train" choreography is ingenious and stunningly effective) and, for the first time, attempt to act as equals to the white people around them. Soon they discover their talents for both con artistry and outright armed robbery, and the plot progresses from there.

Where to begin among the cast members? Hicks is the anchor of the production with her authoritative singing voice and mighty presence; Pfeiffer and Raver-Lampman are well matched as their bonds of sisterhood come under stress; Dan Tracy is suave as a small-town boss who thinks he's running things; Donald Webber Jr. gives an aching performance as a servant who just wants the dignity that society refuses to give him; and Crystal Mosser, Yvette Monique Clark, and Awa Sal Secka sparkle in small roles that echo the black-or-white theme.

Dede Ayite has created costumes that both fit the era and, in the case of the Kinfolk, subtly incorporate more contemporary looks. Alex Jainchill's vivid lighting design and Ryan Hickey's sound design enhance the experience, underscored by 10 musicians led by keyboardist Darryl G. Ivey.

Gun & Powder runs through February 23, 2020, at Signature Theatre's MAX Theater, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington VA. For tickets and information, please call 703-820-9771 or 1-800-955-5566 or visit

Book and lyrics by Angelica Chéri
Music by Ross Baum
Directed by Robert O'Hara
Choreographed by Byron Easley
Music direction by Darryl G. Ivey
By special arrangement with Ben Holtzman, Sammy Lopez, and Fiona Rudin

Cast: Mary Clarke: Solea Pfeiffer
Martha Clarke: Emmy Raver-Lampman
Jesse: Dan Tracy
Elijah: Donald Webber Jr.
Tallulah Clarke: Marva Hicks
Sissy: Yvette Monique Clark
Flo: Awa Sal Secka
Fannie Porter: Crystal Mosser
Kinfolk: Yvette Monique Clarke, Amber Lenell Jones, Rayshun LaMarr, Da'Von T. Moody, Christopher Michael Richardson, Awa Sal Secka, Kanysha Williams
Ensemble: Wyn Delano, Christian Douglas, Crystal Mosser, Eleanor Todd