Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
Steppingstone Theatre for Youth Development
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of My Mother Has 4 Noses, Dancing with Giants and The Royale


Chuck Logan, Kennie Cotton, Inayah El-Amin,
Eponine Diatta, and Charla Marie Bailey

Photo by Dan Norman
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is Mildred B. Taylor's poignant saga of an African-American girl and her family during the depression in rural Mississippi. Based on stories about Taylor's own family, the book received the 1977 Newberry Award for Children's Literature. The stage version, adapted by Ed Shockley, premiered at the Seattle Children's Theater in 1991, and Steppingstone Theatre for Youth Development has now mounted it on their stage, with both public performances and a host of school-day matinee performances playing to audiences on a field trip. The production is earnest as it unspools a story of historical significance that continues to send ripples through society eighty years later.

Roll of Thunder is the second of four novels Taylor wrote about the fictional Logan family, drawn from stories passed on to her about her own family. The narrator is 9-year-old Cassie, a strong-willed girl who speaks her mind and challenges "the way things are" in Jim Crow Mississippi, but is devoted to her family. The family includes Cassie's steady-tempered older sister Stacey; their 6-year-old brother Little Man (his given name is Clayton, but "Little Man" suits him); their Papa, who works away from home on the railroad to earn money so the family can keep their farm; Mama, who teachers at the local school for "colored children"; and Grandma, called Big Mama. In the course of the story, their Uncle Hammer shows up from Chicago, nattily dressed and driving the fancy car he bought himself "up north." Papa arrives home from his latest work on the railroad with Mr. Morrison, who was fired for striking his bosses, though the bosses had provoked him. Mr. Morrison, who is actually gentle natured in spite of his hulking frame, moves in with the Logans to help with their farm work and provide Mama and the children with protection while Papa is away.

The Logans are one of the few black families in the county who own their own land—200 acres outright, and another 200 mortgaged. The storyline is rather episodic, but much of it follows the Logans' constant struggle to hold on to their land, especially after they are identified as leaders in a boycott of the local mercantile, whose proprietor, Dewberry Wallace, savagely beat a man on suspicion that he had looked—only looked—at Wallace's wife inappropriately. Also woven into this compelling thread is the fate of a friend of the Logan children, T.J., who has his mind set on leaving their hayseed life and moving to Chicago. T.J. gets in with some slightly older white boys who lead him into serious trouble. Other incidents and indignities include the Logan children's dismay at being shunted aside when they try to shop at a general store every time a white customer walks through the door; their realization that the old books they are given for use at school had been used for several years by white children until they were worn out, and only then handed off the "colored school"; and Cassie's devious revenge against a white girl, Lillian Jean, who had humiliated her. In a positive vein, there is Lillian Jean's younger brother Jeremy, who wants to be friends with the Logan kids and does not know why their different skin colors should make a difference—at least, not yet.

With Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, one of the Twin Cities' fastest rising theater talents, Kory LaQuess Pullam, marks his debut as director of a major production. Pullam, who has appeared on numerous local stages including a highly praised performance as Hamlet at Park Square just a few months ago, came to the Twin Cities five years ago as an apprentice with Children's Theatre Company, so it is no surprise that he works well with his cast of (mostly) young actors, ranging in age from 10 to 17. He elicits performances that convey the emotional weight of the story, and creating relationships both among family members, and between rivals, that feel authentic. The pacing and transitions are smooth as well, with the exception of several missed lighting cues. Only the blocking is wanting at times. In several scenes, characters stand facing the stage, waiting for their turn to speak, rather than being engaged in natural behaviors. This is not the case in scenes that include any of the four adult actors in the cast, for examples, scenes when Mama is on the porch, engaging the children in helping with chores.

Of the youngsters, Inayah El-Amin is especially impressive as Cassie. As the central character, she creates a whole, complex person, persuasively expressing a wide range of emotions, and a yearning for understanding the difficulties that are part of her social inheritance. Eponine Diatta is moving as Stacey, the oldest Logan child who tries to live up to the responsibilities placed on her, and Chuck Logan wins our hearts as the still innocent Little Man. Livy Oftedahl effectively portrays Lilian Jean's hypocrisy and the unthinking racism that she has absorbed from her culture. Austin Lewis's portrayal of two white men who bluntly demonstrate their racist condescension toward their black neighbors is unsettlingly honest.

The finest performance in Roll of Thunder is given by Charla Marie Bailey as Mama, torn between standing up for what is right and protecting her family from the wrath of retaliation. She convincingly dispenses both "tough love" and tenderness toward her children, and genuine affection for her husband. Kennie Cotton plays Papa with quiet strength, a man who has labored long and hard to build something for his family, having to dodge the incursions of discrimination and harassment. Brandon A. Jackson is convincing, both as Big Mama and as Mr. Morrison, and Shana Eisenberg plays a schoolteacher at the "colored school." In the book, this teacher is a black woman, and having Ms. Eisenberg, who is white, in the role, is a bit confusing, but nonetheless, she brings it off, as well as playing a couple of other small parts.

The lovely set, designed by Leazah Behrens, has the effect of a patchwork quilt, with vertical panels that depict different facets of the Logan family's world—interior and exterior of their cabin, their farm fields—in close up views, with a backdrop that brings all of these together in a panoramic whole. The façade of the Logans' cabin, with its rough-hewn front porch, graces one side of the stage. Rhiannon Fiskradatz has designed costumes that represent the era and the social status of the characters. Joshua Stallings and Dan Smeiska have created lighting and sound, respectively, that especially add dimension to scenes of a grass fire and of a thunderstorm. Foster Johns has done a fine job as dialect coach to guide the cast in adopting Mississippi accents.

The play, like the book, uses highly racially charged words, candidly depicting the way things were—and in some quarters, may be still. There is also a near lynching, and scenes of the men who ride at night, their identity concealed under white hoods, terrorizing their African-American neighbors. The question "when is it best to tolerate the abuse and when is it necessary to take action for oneself and one's community?" is repeatedly raised. It ends with a sense of relief, but also a shadow of continued strife and loss. This is heavy stuff for young audiences, but important lessons for children—of all races—if given sensitive advance notice and follow-up discussion by parents or teachers.

I attended a student matinee performance of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. There were a few other intrepid people sitting in the back of the house, with most of the auditorium filled by elementary and middle school students and their teachers. The great majority of the kids were students of color. They were drawn into the story, responding vociferously to the foibles of the characters, and with hushed surprise by some of the strong language. They were not judging the art of the play, but its meaning, which clearly was evident to them. This is youth theater, but its content is not only for youth. For anyone old enough to consider issues of justice, tolerance, community violence, problem-solving, family loyalty and self-respect, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, is compelling theater.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, through March 3, 2018, at the Steppingstone Theatre for Youth Development, 55 Victoria Street N., Saint Paul MN. Tickets: Adults - $16.00; Seniors, children and youth - $12.00. Recommended for children in Grade 3 and up. For more information go to www.steppingstonetheatre.org or call 651-225-9265.

Writer: Ed Shockley, adopted from the book by Mildred B. Taylor; Director: Kory LaQuess Pullam; Assistant Director: Emily Villano; Set Design and Technical Director: Leazah Behrens; Costume Design: Rhiannon Fiskradatz; Lighting Design: Joshua Stallings; Sound Design: Dan Smeiska; Props Design: Brooke Nelson; Dialect Coach: Foster Johns; Stage Manager: Amanda Gehrke; Assistant Stage Manager: Turi Jystad; Production Manager: Rachel Ostroot.

Cast: Charla Marie Bailey (Mama), Ellington Brunelle (Jeremy), Sar Chirhart (Dewberry Wallace), Kennie Cotton (Papa), Eponine Diatta (Stacey), Shana Eisenberg (Miz Crowder/Mrs. Crumb/Nightmen), Inayah El-Amin (Cassie), Analah Fearce (Marylou), Brandon A. Jackson (Big Mama/ Mr. Morrison), Austin Lewis (Harlan Granger/Mr. Simms), Chuck Logan (Little Man), Kaydale Moore (T.J.), Marguerite Mountain (Hazel/Grace), Livy Oftedahl (Lillian Jean), Devon Selmon (Hammer/Claude Avery/Man), Amelia Schucker (R.W. Simms), Adeline Wendt (Melvin Simms/Woman), Lydia Wildes (Ms. Barnett/Nightmen)


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