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A CurtainUp DC Review
Guns & Powder

God forbid you end up just like me — Tallulah to her daughters, Mary and Martha
Solea Pfeiffer- Photo by Christopher Mueller
Signature Theatre is to be commended for presenting the world premiere of Gun & Powder, playing for four weeks only (January 28 through February 23, 2020). Although it is clearly a first draft of what could become a truly viable musical.

Mary Clarke (Solea Pfeiffer) and Martha Clarke (Emmy Raver-Lampman), are twin daughters of African-American Tallulah Clarke (Marve Hicks). Their white father who disappeared after they were conceived. Both Mary and Martha are "high yella," meaning so light skinned that they pass for white which, as they approach adulthood, they realize could be their ticket out of the segregated South. Fyi, not until 1968 did the Supreme Court of the United States rule that prohibiting miscegenation (creating and/or being children of mixed race) was unconstitutional.

Prejudice and lack of opportunities were not the only reasons the sisters wanted, in 1893, to leave the plantation on which their mother was an indentured slave. Because Tallulah had a hard time paying rent, her daughters headed north to see if they could make money, which they did thanks to their mother's farewell gift of a small pistol. With threats towards white men, especially those with lascivious intent, the sisters were able to extract considerable amounts of cash from their prey. It wasn't pretty but it worked. The title, is clever: Gun refers to a pistol and Powder, the cosmetic used to lighten the appearance of a woman's skin.

Along the way, inevitably, Mary and Martha meet men who love them. Mary's beau, Jesse (Dan Tracy), a good ole Southern white saloon owner, who claims to have fallen in love with Mary ever since he saw her image on a Wanted poster, woos and weds her without knowing her genetic makeup. Martha, the feistier of the two sisters, although neither is a shrinking violet, becomes the object of an African American butler, Elijah, (Donald Webber, Jr., in a particularly endearing performance due to the perception of his character's modesty) affection. His rendition of "Invisible" is the show's emotional high point.

The sisters, who were once so close, become antagonistic, particularly when Mary marries Jesse, which ends Act One. So far, so good. Angelica Cheri's book, which is based on a partially true story about her great aunts, sets a tense scene of life in the South for African-Americans and mulattoes. Some of her lyrics are good and Ross Baum's music is delightful. Although, Sound man Ryan Hickey frequently overmikes the singers. Byron Easley's choreography, which references African movement as well as the syncopated clapping once prevalent on plantations, is inspired. As is Robert O'Hara's direction -- his most recent other credit btw is the Broadway sensation Slave Play. Dede Ayite's costumes, especially for the sisters, are beautiful.

But what makes Act One pleasurable are the glorious duets sung by Mary and Martha, "Wide Open Plains," and "Just Passing Through." Their harmonizing is flawless. As the brazen hussy who struts her stuff (again, great choreography) at the local saloon, Crystal Mosser gives a fun performance as Fannie Porter. To lighten the mood, there are Sissy (Yvette Monique Clark) and Flo (Awa Sal Secka) who are hilarious as the below-stairs maids who see and know all, particularly in their songs "Dirty Shame" and "Dangerous." Uhuh. Maybe their schtick is too close to traditional Amos and Andy-like patter for some folks but opening night they brought the house down.

Then there's Act Two. Anticipation after such an enjoyable first act was high but, sadly, was soon dimmed by unbelievable plot reversals, corny lyrics, too many references to "it's in the blood," and dialogue such as "In Smith and Wesson we trust." Really?

Signature, as always, is to be commended for putting considerable resources into what could be and probably will be, once cuts and changes are made, a very fine musical.

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Book and Lyrics by Angelica Cheri
Music by Russ Baum
Directed by Robert O'Hara
Choreographed by Byron Easley
Music Direction by Darryl G. Ivey
Cast: Montel b. Butler (Swing); Yvette Monique Clark (Sissy/Kinfolk); Alex De Bard (Swing); Wyn Delano (Ensemble); Christian Douglas (Ensemble); Christian Douglas (Ensemble); Marva Hicks (Tallulah Clarke); Amber Lenell Jones (Kinfolk); Rayshun LaMarr (Kinfolk); Calvin Malone (Swing); Adelina Mitchell (Mary Clarke); Da'Von T. Moody (Kinfolk); Crystal Mosser (Fannie Porter); Solea Pfeiffer (Mary Clarke); Emmy Raver-Lampman (Martha Clarke); Christopher Michael Richardson (Kinfolk); Awa Sal Secka (Flo/Kinfolk/Dance and Fight Captain); Kylie Clare Smith (Swing); Eleanor Todd (Ensemble); Dan Tracy (Jesse); Donald Webber, Jr. (Elijah); Kanysha Williams (Kinfolk).

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Signature Theatre,; Performances January 28 to February 23, 2020. Reviewed by Susan Davidson at February 6, 2020 performance.

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