Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Girl Shakes Loose
Penumbra Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Great Divide, While You Were Out, The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence and Vietgone and Kit's review of Wicked

Thomasina Petrus, Jamecia Bennet, and Alexis Sims
Photo by Allen Weeks for Penumbra Theatre
Penumbra Theatre is closing out its fortieth season with an ambitious and mostly successful world premiere production of Girl Shakes Loose. The show was one of three musicals selected for a workshop production at the 2016 O'Neill National Music Theater Conference. It tells the story of a young African-American woman overcoming her demons and finding inner strength as she wrestles with career disillusionment, fear of commitment, and estrangement from her family and small town roots. It has a book by stage and screen writer Zakiyyah Alexander, music by rising-star composer-vocalist Imani Uzuri, with Alexander and Uzuri providing lyrics, as well as lyrics taken from the poetry of Sonia Sanchez, beloved poet whose first-published work in 1969 was a touchstone of the Black Arts Movement.

Set in a contemporary reality, the focal character of Girl Shakes Loose is simply called Girl. Although she experiences a series of very specific episodes in the course of the play, the absence of a name and her open nature give Girl an everywoman quality. The play begins with Girl returning to New York City from the Bay Area, where her start-up company went bust and her loving relationship with Ella was at a serious juncture for which Girl was not prepared. New York was Girl's home when she attended college, but returning with no money and no plan, she finds a cold and gentrified city that no longer seems to fit. She couch surfs her way to a small, windowless room with a whacky landlady, is rebuffed by employers as being overqualified for available jobs, and finds comfort in sex devoid of emotion.

When her grandmother in Georgia dies, Girl's great aunt Lucille calls to tell Girl she is expected at home, and she returns to her small hometown of Elberton in northeast Georgia for the first time in ten years. She easily reconnects with high school friends, her first boyfriend, and Aunt Lucille, but getting through to Mama is another story. Girl's efforts to reach out to her mother are coldly rebuked. When she offers to help with the funeral events, Mama tersely says there are plenty of folks around "with time to help on a regular basis." Girl is moved by Grandma's spirited funeral service, and with a strong push from Aunt Lucille, she and Mama at last begin to see beyond their own hurt. Through the healing process, Girl realizes that what she wants is back in San Francisco. We follow Girl's trip back to the Bay Area, where she confronts the life she had run away from, determined to make a new start, free of the fears and doubts that had kept her from embracing happiness.

The story is a small and common one: young adults, lost within their own lives, break free of self-negating patterns and thoughts, and find the inner strength to be their true selves. Yet it contains large feelings, as anyone who has made such a journey of self-discovery knows. Remarkably, Girl Shakes Loose turns the simple account of one woman shaking off her chains a powerful celebration of self-acceptance and empowerment by the force of its music, poetry, staging and performances.

There is an abundance of music, 33 titles plus a few reprises. Imani Uzuri's work embraces a range of styles, from R&B to jazz to hip hop to gospel to ballad. There is even a mock operetta number, "Soymilk", sung by Girl's landlady in Brooklyn to lay down the strict rules of her new-age abode. They range from the sublimely romantic, such as "Wilderness", a Sonia Sanchez poem set to music, to haunting, as in "Spare Some Change," to blunt satire, such as "Overqualified Black Girl," to expressions of gathering courage, such as another Sanchez poem, "I Am Not Afraid of the Night." The lyrics work in concert with the music to convey wit, yearning, regret, hope or acceptance as called for by the narrative.

Alexander's book offers literate writing with dialogue that is authentic to its characters. However, it is soft at its center. The source of Girl's problems is her cowardice in not communicating with her either her girlfriend or her mother. Instead, she runs away, then cites to too much time having passed as the reason for further inaction. It is hard to sympathize with Girl when she seems to be her own worst enemy. When she and Mama finally do begin to see one another, it seems like they might just as easily have had this talk years ago, letting go of their bitterness and hurt. Also, the ease with which Mama accepts Girl's sexuality is hard to believe, given the personality and values attributed to Mama.

Fortunately, when Girl does "shake loose," it is easy to cheer for her—especially given Alexis Sims' radiant performance. Sims, not before been seen on Twin Cities' stages, is a charismatic actor who projects both strength and vulnerability. Her beautiful, throaty voice conveys a range of emotions. Among many highlights of her performance is "Spare Some Change (Homeless Woman)" in which she sees her own lost soul in the plight of a panhandling woman. Even if Girl Breaks Loose did not have a great deal else going for it, it would be worth seeing to make Ms. Sim's acquaintance.

The rest of the first rate cast stand out in their character parts, as well as serving as the show's ensemble. Most praiseworthy is Thomasina Petrus' portrayal of Mama, making the softening of her heart, which has hardened to protect its wounds, believable and compelling. She comes through with three songs: "Nothing Makes Sense Without You," a reprise of "She Got a Right," and "Don't Give Up on Love," a power ballad she shares with Sims and Jamecia Bennet as Aunt Lucille. Bennet more than holds her own as a staunch matriarch, radiating love but allowing for no nonsense.

Tatiana Williams delivers both loveliness and strength as Ella, whose love for Girl is deep and hot, as she conveys beautifully in "Wilderness" and "You Keep Saying," two Sonia Sanchez poems set to Uzuri's expressive music. Kory Pullam projects sweetness as Eddie, Girl's first boyfriend, who still has hopes she will settle back in Elberton, and China Brickey perfectly captures clueless, self-obsessed new-age landlord Veronica. The ensemble's choral work is stunning, and the lively choreography by Karen L. Charles uses dance and movement to expand on the emotional tenor of each stop along Girl's path.

Director May Adrales moves the story forward with fluidity, with each new scene seeming to arise organically from the one preceding it. The physical production is terrific in every respect. Vicki Smith's set design features panels on which projections, both still and moving shots created by Kathy Maxwell, depicts settings around San Francisco Bay, New York, the view from the train as Girl travels, and other locales. The panels are turned to create Girl's very rustic family home in Elberton. Paul Whitaker's lighting and John Acaerrgui's sound design beautifully supports the story. Trevor Bowen's costumes use simple flourishes to stamp each character's unique persona, leaving Girl in a uniform of jeans, tank top, and flannel shirt throughout. Costuming, staging, and message merge, as when the ladies' Sunday hats descend from the flies for them to place atop their heads for Grandma's funeral, as if the hats really are crowns provided by the heavens for these pious women.

Girl Shakes Loose is likely to move on to other productions. Penumbra has been honored to be able to offer the world premiere of this play, and in turn honors our theater community. It is a work of beauty, heart, imagination and conviction. There are so many GirlS out there—and Boys as well—struggling to shake loose the chains of culture, family, society, and their own inner turmoil, and discover the beauty in being their true selves. Girl Shakes Loose stands as an homage and inspiration to them.

Girl Shakes Loose continues through May 14, 2017, at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent Street, Saint Paul, MN. Tickets are Adults - $40.00, Seniors 62+ -$35.00, Students with valid ID - $15.00. For tickets call 651-224-3180 or go to

Music and Lyrics: Imani Uzuri; Book and Lyrics: Zakiyyah Alexander; Poetry: Sonia Sanchez; Director: May Adrales; Conductor: Sanford Moore; Choreography: Karen L. Charles; Scenic Design: Vicki Smith; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Paul Whitaker; Sound Design: John Acaerrgui; Projection Design: Kathy Maxwell; Wig Design: Andrea Moriarity; Stage Manager: Mary K. Winchell; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Abrigo.

Cast: Jamecia Bennet (Aunt Lucille, Ensemble), China Brickey (Veronica, Ensemble), John Jamison (James, Luc, Ensemble), Lamar Jefferson (Barry, Ensemble), Thomasina Petrus (Mama, Ensemble), Valencia Proctor (Ensemble), Kory Pullam (Eddie, Ensemble), Alexis Sims (Girl), Tatiana Williams (Ella, Ensemble).

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