Part Two of our series on The Women of Brewster Place
By Joel Markowitz
It’s always an exciting time when a musical theatre lover like me is allowed to sit in on a rehearsal of a brand new musical. On Wednesday, Oct 17th, because of the generosity of Director Molly Smith and Arena’s media relations manager Kirstin Lunke, I was permitted to meet and watch and listen and schmooze with the cast of The Women of Brewster Place.
PODCASTING ELEASHA AND MONIQUE
I arrived at Arena Stage at 5:30 PM and met Kirstin and media relations intern Haley Miller, who walked me to the old administration lobby, where I set up my laptop and recorded an interview with local actresses/singers extraordinaire – Eleasha Gamble and Monique Midgette.
I have been waiting a long time to interview Eleasha – I am a big fan of her’s – whose Helen Hayes nominated performance as Sarah in Toby’s – The Dinner Theatre of Columbia’s production of Ragtime, is still etched in my memory. It’s one of the greatest musical performances I have ever seen. I saw it 10 times – it was that astounding.
I was also reminded of what Meet John Doe’s composer and lyricist Andrew Gerle and Eddie Sugarman told Lorraine Treanor and me on Tuesday, March 20th about Felicia’s audition for the show: director Eric Shaeffer asked Felicia to “take five steps back” before she began singing Defying Gravity from Wicked.
Before the podcast began, Monique and I talked about the opening night of Marie Christine at Lincoln Center, Dec 1999, where she appeared in the ensemble. I was sitting in the loge that stormy winter night in the front row with several friends who had made the trip from DC, and I will never forget Audra McDonald’s and Mary Testa’s (she’s in Xanadu now) powerful performances and the bongo player who pounded on those drums for over 2 ½ hours. Ouch!
ON WITH THE SHOW…
It’s 7:30 PM, and I’m sitting with Kirstin and Haley in the second row of the mezzanine – my favorite seat in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage.
I had not read any of the reviews from its opening at The Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, where The Women of Brewster Place had its co-production before transferring to Arena Stage. I am coming into this final run-through rehearsal with an open mind and an excitement and great anticipation that I will see something wonderful and new. And who knows what can happen during the rehearsal?
Up here in the mezzanine, there are cables everywhere – protruding from the ceiling, from the lighting boxes, and over chairs. Dramaturg Otis Ramsey-Zoe is to the right of me, carefully following the script. In the left side of the lighting box, a projections/lighting assistant is standing, ready to project. Kirstin points out that projections consultant Jeffrey Sugg, who recently designed the gorgeous visuals for 33 Variations at Arena Stage, is consulting with projections designer Adam Larsen.
Looking down at the orchestra section, there is stuff everywhere – tables with cables, computer screens, pens and pencils, food, and lots of three ring binders and notes. It looks like the Sunday Georgetown flea market.
Director Molly Smith, composer Tim Acito, music director/co-orchestrator/and keyboardist William Foster McDaniel, choreographer Kenneth L. Roberson, set designer Anne Patterson, costume designer Paul Tazwell, lighting designer Michael Gilliam, sound designer Garth Hemphill, stage manager Amber Dickerson (who waves and says “Hi” to me), assistant stage manager Kate Olden, stage management fellow Anna Johannson and directing fellow Vijay Matthew – are all here. They look a little nervous, but very confident. Everyone is at his/her own battle station, ready to go to war – to tighten the show – to make it the best it can be.
Suddenly, Susan White, who was stage managing that evening, announced, “Places everyone! Ladies and gentlemen. Please shut off your cell phones, and buy tickets to our show. There are tickets still available.”
And then we were introduced to the ten magnificent actresses – Broadway vets and future Broadway vets – who make up the cast of The Women of Brewster Place. And boy, can these ladies sing!
–Cheryl Alexander – (Sophie). I saw Cheryl in NYC in Caroline, or Change, It Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues, Once on This Island and Sophistictaed Ladies.
—Terry Burrell (Mrs. Browne). I saw Terry in NYC in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Threepenny Opera and Eubie.
—Suzanne Douglas (Tee). I saw Suzanne in NYC in Threepenny Opera with Sting, Into The Woods and The Tap Dance Kid, and who could forget her in Arena Stage’s Hallelujah Baby!
–Tina Fabrique (Mattie). I saw Tina here at Arena Stage in Crowns, Ma Rainey’s Bottom, and can’t wait to see her this year in Ella. In NYC, I saw her in Ragtime, Dessa Rose, and Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk.
–Harriet Foy (Lorraine). I saw Harriet at Arena in The Piano Lesson and Polk County, and on Broadway in Mamma Mia! and Once on This Island.
–Eleasha Gamble (Wanda). Who can forget Eleasha’s Witch in this year’s Signature production of Into The Woods, and her performances as Sara in Ragtime at Toby’s – The Dinner Theatre of Columbia and Erzulle in Round House Theatre’s Once On This Island? She’s a future Broadway star!
–Marva Hicks (Etta Mae). I saw Marva in NYC in both productions of Caroline, Or Change at the Public Theatre (Off-Broadway) and when it transferred to the Eugene O’Neill theatre, and her Helen Hayes Award performance in Thunder Knocking On The Door at Arena Stage and Off-Broadway at the Minetta lane Theatre.
–Monique L. Midgette (Kiswana). I saw Monique in NYC in Marie Christine, The Civil War and Seussical on Broadway, and at Arena last year in Cabaret.
—Tijuana T. Ricks (Cora Lee). I have never seen Tijuana perform before, but after tonight, I’ll be keeping an eye out for her future performances.
–Shelley Thomas (Luciella). I’ll never forget Shelley as Paradice and Faith in the Off-Broadway production of Zanna Don’t, (which The Women of Brewster Place’s composer Tim Acito composed) and her powerful roof raising voice in Brooklyn on Broadway.
What a vocally talented cast! The show opens with a rousing new number, “The End of the Line,” in which the characters are introduced to the audience. It’s 5.5 on the Richter Scale. Listening to the score, I think back to 1975 when I fell in love with R&B, and funk and soft pop, and was introduced to gospel through friends who were active in their church choirs.
The sets are geometric pieces that form various houses and residences, a church a meeting hall, an alley, etc. They fly in from above, below and from the wings. They fit together, separate, and glide apart. It’s a very busy set.
Two scenes stick in my mind: We are in church. Projected on the stage is a huge cross, and the church pews rise from up from the floor of the stage. The women fill in the pews, and the preacher, represented in a large shadow, towers over the scene. It’s breathtaking.
And there’s one which involves a wall. Even in rehearsal, I can tell it will be stunning. You’ll have to see the show to appreciate it. It’s as good as it’s cracked up to be.
When I was walking with Kirstin and Haley earlier to set up the podcast, we noticed three basil plants in the corner. Well, as we found out while watching the show, these herbs have meaning in the show. I won’t give it away, so listen carefully when you watch the show.
You can only imagine the adjustments Molly, the designers, and the cast have had to make to adapt from the larger Alliance Theatre stage to the Kreeger’s smaller stage. The most interesting part of the rehearsal for me was watching the lighting designers tweaking and adjusting the projections and trying different options. I was extremely impressed by the use of shadows in the show.
That night the book was still being finalized, the actors were still learning new lines, and it was remarkable that only one actress had to call for lines.
And when a chair and table were not “marked” correctly and an elevator failed to behave (every production has its “ups and downs”), these scenes had to be performed again.
It ain’t easy, fellow theatergoers.
TINA AND HARRIET MOVE ME
I am in love with Tina Fabrique! How do you play Mattie, the matriarch of The Women of Brewster Place – a somber woman- and convey warmth? How do you play a woman whose life may be seen as pathetic, and not overact, and get the audience on your side? You get a pro to portray the matriarch of the show – Tina Fabrique.
Not since Tonya Pinkins blew me away in Caroline, Or Change has an actress grabbed the audience and wrung them through so many emotions and succeeded. When Tina sang her help me Lord! showstopper “This Ain’t a Prayer,” (with the ensemble joining in) to end the first act, I was reminded that I was in the presence of a great actress and singer. I kept saying “Wow!” during the break.
My advice to all you young actors out there is to come and see Tina’s performance. You can learn a lot from this pro!
I was very moved by Harriet D. Foy’s performance as Lorraine. It’s a not an easy role and she delivers her comic and serious and powerful and heartbreaking songs with great power and sensitivity. I can’t wait to hear her songs “Ghost with Paper Bones” and “If You Want Me To Be Strong” on press night on Friday, Oct 26th. Harriet knows how to sell a song and her delivery is not only gorgeous, but spine tingling.
THE COLOR PURPLE COMPARISON:
With Fantasia packing The Color Purple in NYC with her critically acclaimed performance as Celie, you just can’t escape the inevitable comparison between The Color Purple and The Women of Brewster Street. Both shows are based on long novels and you can only imagine how difficult it was to select what parts of the novel they would musicalize. I have read both novels and both book writers have done a good job in making their choices.
Like Celie, Mattie is the matriarch of the show- tough like nails, with a huge heart. Lorraine and Tee have to hide their love for each other as do Celie and Sug Avery and Etta Mae has Sug Avery’s libido and loving personality. And there are similar musical themes. Men are looked upon in an unfavorable light in both these shows. In fact, in The Women of Brewster Place, no male actors appear on the stage. Instead, to focus totally on the women and their stories, the male characters referred to in the book, appear on the stage only in a huge shadow – in a very threatening manner.
It will be interesting to see if the local critics compare the two shows in their reviews. We’ll have to wait and see.
For me, I couldn’t help see some of The Color Purple when I watched the rehearsal, but visually they are so different. The Women of Brewster Street may not have the huge budget of The Color Purple, but its heart is as big and it’s cast’s talents are humongous.
OK. I’ll give in …just a little.
I love the song “Leave The Light On”- whose melody I am humming now as I complete this article:
“I leave the light on
To show you the way home…”
Thanks Molly and Kirstin for allowing me to witness the power and joy of collaboration and teamwork. And to all The Women of Brewster Place, break down that wall! The DC theatre community eagerly awaits you!
How do you make the important and difficult choices of what to musicalize from a long novel? I’m sure there were difficult choices which I will have the chance to ask composer/lyricist/librettist Tim Acito in our final article of the series. Watch for it soon.
Part 1: Podcast with Eleasha Gamble and Monique Midgette Listen here.