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Writing for CurtainUp NYC Weather
|A CurtainUp Review
A new company dedicated to empowering, sustaining and furthering the careers of artists of color, especially African-American playwrights, has come to town to showcase a new musical. It's initial effort has found an appropriate home in a new theater, The Duke (named after Doris Duke) which is not too big and not too small, but just right -- and well located on 42nd Street. Both the company and the Duke are welcome additions to the theatrical landscape.
For the many African-Americans torn asunder from family members before the end of the Civil War, emancipation meant finding those lost loved ones. Without money and few if any clues, these efforts to reunite with their kin was often like finding a grain of wheat in a bundle of straw. How to recognize a child sent away at an early age? Where to find the next marker in the journey of a slave sold not once but several times, like a horse or a bale of cotton?
Despite the odds against them, thousands of freed African-Americans gathered at churches and under trees to exchange clues. Some took to the road, their journeys spearheaded more by hope and rumors than any solid leads. These efforts to reconnect broken family ties were known as "in-gathering. ;quot; Playwright and co-lyricist John Henry Redwood (who also acts -- concurrently so at the Signature Theatre's adaptation of A Lesson Before Dying) has given this little known chapter of the African-American experience a very personal perspective through the in-gathering of one ex-slave named January (Frederick Owens).
January is determined to find his wife, Annie Jewel (Kimberly JaJuan), who was sold by a financially strapped plantation owner even though she was pregnant with January's child. The odyssey is framed by a flashback to January and Annie Jewel's meeting and tragic separation and their equally tragic reunion in New Orleans which was something of a crossroads for crowds of "in-gathering" freed slaves.
January's journey is a cross between Don Quixote's travels to undo wrongs and Dorothy's search for the Wizard. It's a story that is filled with both pain and humor and more than a dozen lively songs. The humor is provided mostly by January's own Sancho Panzo, the dimmunitive Giant (Derrick McGinty), who joins January out of loyalty and fear of being alone in the strange new world of freedom. They meet up with a wise slave woman named Cozy (the wonderful Ann Duquesnay) and, occasionally, a group of black robed Spirits who guide them but are forbidden to interfere with destiny.
The spirits portend a climax that has all the melodrama of an opera. However, with the music composed by Daryl Waters, co-composer of Bring In da Noise Bring In da Funk, don't expect a musical of the atonal, sung-through, new music school variety. Nor is the music particular evocative of the slavery and post slavery period. What Water has wrought is a musical idiom that mixes Broadway show music, pop and gospel into a melodic gumbo. This de-emphasizes the inherent melodrama and makes for a history lesson that aims as much to entertain as to enlighten.
With Waters providing the music and Ann Duquesnay playing a prominent role, the show begs comparisons to Bring In da Noise Bring In da Funk. The brilliance and scope and dance magic of Funk is, of course, incomparable. But if you accept The In-Gathering on its own terms, you will come away energized by its attention-holding story, likeable characters and tuneful music.
Frederick Owens brings great presence and a fine voice to the leading role. Ann Duquesnay is terrific as the mysterious wanderer and she sure can sing. Kimberly JaJuan's "Do You Remember" duet with Owens is worth reprising, and she is indeed her own woman in her rousing final solo "I'm My Own Woman." Derrick McGinty plays the comic Giant without overdoing it and also has a justifiably reprised duet with January in "Movin. " Dathan Williams is a proper villain as Annie Jewel's black oppressor, Aristede Drambuie. January's disdainful comment, "He says he isn't white" and Annie Jewel's wry "He thinks he i"s got a huge laugh from the audience. With a cast of thirteen, it's enough to say that all members of the ensemble give the show everything they've got.
In keeping with the the bare bones band (composer Daryl Waters at the piano and Leopoldo Fleming handling percussions behind the scrim), director/choreographer Hope Clarke has kept the production simple. The emphasis is on song and lyrics rather than dancing and there's only one big, full company production number, "The Dance of Congo Square." Like The Immigrant, another small musical history lesson by a new company in a new home recently reviewed, The In-Gathering is driven by a strong collaborative spirit and enormous enthusiasm. It's unlikely to move into the pantheon of great musicals with record-breaking runs -- but it deserves a chance to be seen by wider audiences and in other parts of the country.
For our review of John Henry Redwood's much produced The Old Settler, go here; and A Lesson Before Dying in which he is currently performing, go here