These are things that break hearts: worn letters to and from a war, recalling memories with loved ones in your newly-sold childhood home, and a triangularly folded flag with a single dog tag, the other buried just today. Three Sistahs, returning to MetroStage from a run in 2007, contains all of these heart-breaking objects and mixes them with rollicking comedy in a high-tempo musical that does Anton Chekhov proud.
Three Sistahs’ story creator Janet Pryce and author/director Thomas W. Jones II take the house that Chekhov built in Three Sisters, strip it to its frame, then rebuild a story of loss and Vietnam-era Black consciousness, rife with the music of gospel and soul. Sounds pretty different from Czarist-era, tea-swilling examination of privilege of the original, doesn’t it? Even so, Chekhov undeniably influenced this piece, though it may be more accurately characterized as “inspired by” Chekhov rather than an “adaptation from” him.
So what remains of the original? Much, if you know where to look. Beyond the names of the characters and their family structure (three sisters, a brother and an absent father), both Chekhov and Jones’ work contain an existential crisis embroiled in their family home, themes on the influence of military life on a family, and, most importantly, a gorgeously orchestrated tempo that quickly shifts from deeply dramatic to jaw-achingly hilarious and back. Jones’ work here, as author and as director, exemplify Chekhov’s famous stage direction “laughing through her tears,” taking a classic concept and giving it a pair of perfectly executed twists.
Those twists, the introduction of the setting of 1969 and bringing in soul and gospel music into the script, elevate Three Sistahs to a mastery rarely seen at this level on Washington-area stages. The change of setting in this play is hyper-precise and allows Pryce and Jones to tell a new story about the Black experience in America.
The play takes place over the course of less than 24 hours in Washington, D.C. in 1969, where 3 sisters are returning to their now-sold family home from their brother’s military funeral after his death in Vietnam. This moment is the first reconnection the three have had since their father’s funeral last year, held amid the smoke of the King riots rising from the city. The action of the play is centered on the packing of their childhood home and dealing with the postmortem personal items of both their brother and their father.
Each of the sisters is at a different stage of their life, and they deal with their changing world, their memories, and their loss in their own ways. The oldest, Olive, is played by Bernardine Mitchell who reprises her role from the 2007 production, and she brings a captivating power, maturity, and comfort to the role. Olive is a woman who plays the matron for this family, caring for their father until his death when neither other sister would while constantly providing advice and support for her sisters.
Roz White plays Marsha, the attention-grabbing middle sister, whose contrasting antics and marriage troubles could have made for a flat character, but White brings a smirking subtly to the role that oozes class and range. The youngest sister Irene, played by the newly-carded Equity member Ashley Ware Jenkins, has both the innocence and ferocity of the young, and Jenkins attacks this role in a way that can only be described as fierce, never reducing her character to the activist stereotype that she could have become.
These actresses bring three different voices and approaches to their characters that perfectly reflect their roles: Olive as the motherly figure who relies on faith to get through hard times, Marsha as the class-conscious climber who relies on herself and her intuition, and Irene, who, for all her professed independence, carries a strong faith in the civil rights and Black power movement to change a society that is fundamentally broken.
Much like Chekhov’s sisters, these women embody hope for their family in the hardest of times, but each has a different personal origin for that hope. That difference in hope creates the tensile dynamics of their interactions as they face fundamental changes in their familial world and in their world at large. The death of their brother in the Vietnam War merges these worlds brilliantly, giving each of them different surfaces and levels to play off of as they try to convince their sisters and themselves of their worth and rightness in the world of the play.
The dynamic tension between the sisters, and its eventual resolution, is perfectly expressed through the music of the play. I was initially skeptical of the addition of music to such a profound and subtle story. The addition of music to a straight play can be problematic because it can flatten the emotions of the characters and create a segmentation of scenes, especially in a quick-tempoed and volatile piece, where each line and scene needs to flow together without break.
In Three Sistahs, however, Jones and composer William Hubbard (as well as Music Director and pianist William Knowles) solve this problem by integrating the music directly into the text, rarely creating a solid break between lines and lyrics and often interweaving script into lyrics to break monotonous patterns. This technique solidifies Three Sistahs as the ever-elusive “play with music,” rather than a musical, using music to complicate, rather than simplify characters’ emotions.
Closes November 9, 2014
1201 North Royal Street
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $55 – $60
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Beyond the structural and emotional issues that can occasionally plague musicals, the actual performance of the songs can work against actors fully embodying their characters. I will often recommend to friends that they wait until later in a run to see a musical so that the actors can get a chance to really gel as a singing and dancing body, smooth out transitions, and plumb the depths of their songs. There is no need to wait for Three Sistahs. Perhaps this production is benefitting from being on its third run at MetroStage, but these actors perform as if they have been doing this musical for years. Their music and dance are beautifully synchronized; their pacing and transitions are artfully orchestrated. These exceptionally talented women have already mastered that extra-sensory perception that is coveted by any acting body: they can read each other’s minds, pick up song cues exactly and in unison, and extemporaneously adjust their pace as the audience dictates. I have never seen such indelible and subtle harmony in a production so early in a run.
The designers of Three Sistahs show a similar harmony, but with a different tone: restraint. Carl Gudenius’ set design contains exactly what is needed for this play and nothing more. Every furniture position, every object on the set, has a specific and meaningful purpose to the play so that there is no wasted space or distraction from the action. Xena Petkanas’ lights show a similar maturity, expressing time and mood without showy tricks. Janine Sunday’s costumes and Dannielle Hutchison’s wigs appear tailor-made for these women as well. While each character requires a radically different style, neither the wigs nor the costumes feel out of place chronologically and each contains sometimes subtle, sometimes overt hints at character. Taken together, the overall production design shows a consistency that can only come from a producer and director that are deeply familiar with the show.
That familiarity might be a reason some audience members excuse themselves from seeing this show. “I saw it last time,” someone might say, or someone else could say, “Why should I see the third run of a show?” This is my answer: because Three Sistahs is just that good. This play is a gift to DC theater, local and incredibly orchestrated. Three Sistahs has aged like wine, developing deep flavor and an easy synchronicity that can only be found in long-run plays. If you saw it last time, see it again because time has surely improved the play. If you haven’t seen it at all, don’t hesitate to get your tickets. If there’s any justice in the world, Three Sistahs should be sold out at every performance.
Three Sistahs . written and directed by Thomas W. Jones II . Featuring Bernardine Mitchell, Roz White and Ashley Ware Jenkins . Set design:Carl Gudenius . Lighting design: Xena Petkanas . Costume design: Janine Sunday . Wig design: Dannielle Hutchison . Produced by MetroStage . Reviewed by Alan Katz.
Closes November 9
Alan Katz . DCTheatreScene a high-tempo musical that does Anton Chekhov proud.
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway The women drink wine, reminisce, toss recriminations at each other, and try to bridge the gaps between them—but the show only really comes to life when the women sing.
Celia Wren . Washington Post From the moment in which these splendid performers make their entrance, buoyantly parading down the aisle as they sing a gospel number titled “In My Father’s House,” you’re always on tenterhooks waiting for another song.
Brian Bochicchio . MDTheatreGuide a powerhouse show that rocks the house
Michael Poandl . DCMetroTheaterArts foot-tapping, gut-busting and tear-jerking family drama