By: Tim Treanor
Two Queens, One Castle
This is what happened to Jevetta Steele:
She fell in love with a man when she was sixteen. True to the tenets of her Pentecostal faith, she married him, and through twelve years of married life he was her one and only. They had two children. . She went to Broadway, and received an Academy Award nomination. Then her husband had something to tell her.
He was on the down low – a gay man masquerading as straight to avoid the censure of his African-American culture. And something else.
He had the virus.
Her life shattered and all the air sucked out of her universe, Steele did the one thing a true theater professional might be expected to do:
She wrote a musical about it.
Two Queens, One Castle is like no musical you’ve ever seen, though. Part musical tragedy, part gospel opera, it is a howl of pain that ends in a saddle of redemption. It is shocking and profound; angry, moving and honest.
The late, great teacher Gary Prevost once said that writing isn’t life, it’s life’s greatest hits. If we understand “hits” to mean the same things as “blows”, Two Queens delivers. “Wife” (Felecia Curry) – Steele underscores the universality of her story by withholding names for her characters – reacts to the crushing news not like a dramatic character but like a human being. She doesn’t suffer nobly, reach catharsis, and resolve. She screams. She cries. She falls into depression. And at the end, sustained by her immense faith, she manages to regain her footing and begins to recover her dignity.
In the hands of a lesser actor, this could descend into bathos. Curry, however – a tiny woman with an enormous voice – immediately gives Wife her human face. From the giddy teenager, drunk with love, that she inhabits at the beginning of the play to the terrified woman clinging stubbornly to her God that she is at the end, Curry is never anything other than the woman who lived the story. Steele performed the role herself at the play’s first production. I cannot imagine her having done a better job than Curry did last night.
She was matched on stage by T.C. Carson, who played Husband with great subtlety and understanding. If your exposure to Carson is limited to his work on Living Single or his other TV work, you may be unprepared to the great sensitivity he brings to this complex role, or for his operatic voice, which seems to span about 480 octaves. Husband lies more easily than he breathes; had Iago lied as well as Husband does, he would have ended up commanding Othello’s armies. “I’m going to touch you in a sacred way,” he purrs to Wife on their wedding night before he painfully deflowers her; and afterwards lies come out through his mouth like an avalanche of butter. They smother all of Wife’s anxieties and good instincts.
Still, she is troubled. “I want to see him everywhere I look,” she instructs the invisible workmen in the bedroom of the new home her Broadway riches has built. But the harder she looks the faster he slips into the shadows, where he shares himself with the man he truly loves (Gary Vincent). Vincent’s character – here called “Lover” – is sketchily drawn, but Vincent installs him with a shy, self-mocking persona which nicely balances the characters.
Carson’s best moment is at the beginning of the second Act, where with a single note of sustained white-hot pain he launches the most dramatic of the show’s twenty-five songs, “I Choose You.” Here Husband is at his frantic, oleaginous best, explaining how he loved Wife above everything even though he’s gay. Your heart goes out to him, but about two-thirds of the way through the song Carson subtly shades the hue of his voice, and all of a sudden you realize that this is just another line of bull delivered by a man who would say anything. Wife realizes it, too. “Every time you came inside me you tried to commit murder,” she snarls. “Your silence was homicide.”
Steele’s fierce anger informs much of the play. She seems to be enraged, even now, at her seriously ill ex-husband (“He and I have no contact,” she said in an interview. “It’s quite sad.”) and, in the play’s least successful scene, represents Husband’s physical deterioration through a series of grunts, twitches and flashing lights. But her anger and struggle, honestly expressed in this play, was far more authentic and satisfying than any contrived catharsis and resolution. Last night’s production earned a standing ovation.
The three principals are ably supplemented by three Women (Tracy McMullan, Monique Paulwell, and Roz White Gonsalves) who add lush and powerful voices to this tuneful production. I had some difficulty, though, understanding some of the lyrics that came from Paulwell’s mouth. Gonsalves’ performance was particularly impressive. Alternating between roles as Wife’s friend and her mother, Gonsalves was able to add twenty years to her character through subtle changes in her stance, bearing and station and minute shadings in her voice.
Director Thomas W. Jones II, who co-wrote the book with Steele, moves the characters around with great self-assurance. He and choreographer Patdro Harris deserve credit for efficient use of MetroStages capacious stage. Daniel Conway’s set, full of mirrors which turn to glass and self-igniting candles, evoke the mystery and fog which constitute Wife’s emotional life for most of the play.
This is, however, ultimately a musical where the music has the controlling interest. William Hubbard and Steele’s brother, J.D. Steele, have created a score which simultaneously soars and haunts.
The play soars and haunts, too.
In her recent interview on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi show, Zelda Fichandler observed that a call for actors in Washington will yield candidates the equal of any set of actors who will show up in response to a random New York call. Having seen this show, it would be hard to disagree with her. In particular Curry, who is an Equity Membership candidate, displays such a gorgeous voice and gives such a nuanced performance that it makes one optimistic about Washington theater for years to come.
A new musical by Thomas W. Jones II and Jevetta Steele
Music by William Hubbard and J.D. Steele
Directed by Thomas W. Jones
Music directed by William Hubbard
Choreographed by Patdro Harris
Featuring TC Carson (Kyle from Living Single)