It seems every December, theaters are packed with plays and stagings of the Nativity story, but The Anacostia Playhouse is putting on a version like no other with Raquis Da’Juan Petree’s musical comedy, Wasn’t That A Mighty Day?
Imagine a modern church group getting together to perform their annual Christmas show only with cat-fights, a dancing wise woman and enough drama to rival General Hospital.
One actor asks why he is typecast as a shepherd every year. The character assigned to play Mary in the show questions why just because she had a baby when she was young she is destined to play Mary every year. A senior doesn’t understand why she has to play Elizabeth the Elder, wanting instead to play a younger character. From those characters, and others, hilarity ensues.
“It has the seriousness and truth of the Nativity and what it means combined with humor, but it’s not a farce. The antics come from the play within a play,” Petree says, adding “We do deal with the story as a real thing.”
The show stars Helen Hayes Award-winning actress Nova Y. Payton as the choir director.
Petree wrote and directed Payton’s one-woman show Defying Gravity at Signature Theatre and is honored to have her in the production. “Her talent, quick wit and professionalism on the stage adds a great deal to this show,” Petree says. “Everybody in the show is a star, whether you’ve heard of them or not. They are all top singers and actors.”
The idea for the musical came to Petree in 2006 when he was offered the chance to write a show at Howard University but only had 10 days to do it. He quickly went to work on what would become the first draft of Wasn’t That A Mighty Day?
“We knew we wanted to do a holiday show and from that I came up with the idea for the African American audience,” he says. “I move quick, so putting together something like that was right up my alley. I had the idea, brought the artistic team together over the weekend and on Monday we started learning the music and staging.”
He called on friends Daniel Spruill and Marion Johnson, a classmate from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, to help with the lyrics and score. “They brought the bible elements to a fresh place. They have been involved with the music for most of the musicals I have written,” Petree says. “What I always say about them is I have these crazy ideas in my head, and they make it happen in such a wonderful way. They give me such lush melodies and wonderful lyrics.”
Petree admits that the first incarnation of the musical wasn’t as funny, but he saw the potential of what it could be and eventually became. Originally, the show didn’t focus so much on the play within the play part, but as Petree has reshaped his script, he’s concentrated on more of that to add the humor to the show.
“This time I really focused on the show within the show so I could make clear the backstory of those putting on the show,” he says. “There are backstage antics, sort of like Noises Off, that are a big part of telling this story.”
Normally, you wouldn’t associate the Nativity scene with being funny, but Petree knew when people were cracking up at the first table read that he was on to something special. “I wanted to put a different stick on it. The more I explored the lives of the people putting on the play, it became funny and it worked,” he says. “It’s honest and relatable. I am showing that the people of that time are not very different from the people of today.”
He also credits choreographer Tulu Price with making it all look interesting by pushing the actors past their limits in the way they move and dance.
Wasn’t That A Mighty Day?
Closes January 5, 2014
2020 Shannon Place SE
Thursdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., in 1993, Petree became the first student to graduate from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts with a concentration in musical theater/producing. He went on to study musical theater and theater dance at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York and spent a decade as assistant director/choreographer to the late Mike Malone and to Tony Award winner George Faison.
“From a very early age, I knew I wanted to tell stories about me, from me and related to my experiences,” he says. “I looked for them and they weren’t there. I guess out of a need, I wrote them and became a writer and a director. Then I realized it was a real job.”
Currently, Petree teaches performing arts at Columbia Heights Educational Center.
“Every day is different. I like introducing a new generation to the possibility of theatre and dance as a career choice,” he says. “It’s both a burden and a gift to introduce them to this as many have never considered such a possibility.”
As for Wasn’t That A Mighty Day, Petree hopes that the musical will become an annual event and begin touring to three markets —Richmond, Baltimore and D.C. – starting in 2014. “I spend a lot of time on the road travelling with urban shows and it would be great to infuse this kind of quality and theme in the urban market,” he says.
Wasn’t That a Mighty Day? will play through Jan. 5 at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Place, SE, Washington, DC 20020. Tickets are available at www.anacostiaplayhouse.com.