The long-awaited Blackberry Daze has the signature style of a MetroStage production with Thomas W. Jones II at the helm, but the piece also swerves its own way with unusual stylistic touches. Based on the novel Blackberry Days of Summer by Ruby P. Watson, it is a tale about a community in the post- “Great War” era in rural Virginia with characters finding a way to deal with life’s events.
Converting a popular romantic mystery historical novel into a musical is a risky undertaking and this case is no exception. It takes time and effort to smooth through transitions and overall tone. As a world premiere, this first-cut musical has all the pieces nearly put in place for a showcase production.
The characters are nicely developed and the casting is first rate, starting with the ever popular T.C. Carson as the womanizing smooth talking Herman Camm. From the beginning moments when gunshots ring in the middle of a jubilant ensemble dance sequence, we know that no good will come of that no good. One doesn’t expect to see T.C. Carson in a role of villain, but he sleazes so beautifully, just a hot breath away from providing a jaunty fling between the sheets then, artfully dodging all the men in pursuit. Unfortunately his character sinks from playful gigolo to treacherously drunk predator and no amount of back-story about his own deprived childhood can redeem him.
Ayana Reed is Carrie, the young teen valiantly struggling to find her way through life. She completes her chores without much fuss and follows all the “good girl” rules making the best of everything tossed her way. With a sweet innocence of a budding adolescent, she shares a first kiss with Simon, and strives to help her widowed adoptive mom, Mae Lou (Roz White), as best she can, but in her darkest hour, she is rejected, kicked out of the house, and can rely on no one but herself.
That’s because, Mae Lou is so preoccupied and enamored with the flamboyant Herman Camm, who married her for a good meal, that nothing else seems to matter, including his attention to his step-daughter Carrie, or jazz singer Pearl, played with gusto by Yvette Spears.
To have both Roz White and Yvette Spears on the boards together again is a treat not to be missed. In the gospel numbers, White’s powerful vocals crescendo in capturing the soul of the music. Meanwhile, Spears as sensuous lounge singer Pearl is as luscious as ever, belting out contralto tones with her unique resonance and rich timbre.
In addition to strutting her incredible stuff, dancer Nia Harris also gets a chance show her expressive theatrical talents as confident and best friend, Hester. Duane Richards II toggles between two characters so effectively, teenage Simon and the physically menacing wife-beating Willie, he’ll make you double-take a look in the program to confirm its really him. Finally Duyen Washington also playing multiple characters holds her own with rich vocals and creative expressions.
Stylistic touches by Director Thomas W. Jones II heighten the imagination. Long sheets of cloth are pulled by actors to represent a dining table, wrapped around the body for swaddling, and raised up arms length to cover some under the sheets action. The characters also state their own actions, too, adding a defining dimension to the segments.
closes October 9, 2016
Details and tickets
The set design uses rustic wooden slats with sliding screens moved back-and-forth to help frame the scene and tables that can transition from benches to a bed for conjugal activity. Projections designed by Robbie Hayes help tell the story with images of juke joints jumping, a cabin interior, majestic back-woods or name sake patches of blackberries.
Despite the excellent artistry at work, the new piece still struggles to find its footing in consistency and tone. The text can only cover so much material, and some transitions are emotionally choppy with dramatic messages that pop in and out, cloaked in a song. Jones assures a crackling good time with passages that are hysterically funny—catch Roz White as Mae Lou galloping her buggy! That’s all fine, except when a bouncy segment follows a scene of horrendous child abuse and predatory assault. These are tough issues and the stylized rendition is chillingly effective. Following that with a peppy ensemble number glosses over the harshness of the situation. A novel can provide time and space to come to grips with the pain of this victimization and its daunting consequences. In a musical, it’s awkward, uncomfortable, and needs a more palatable resolution.
All in all, this most recent collaborative work of gifted artists in creating and presenting the world premiere of Blackberry Daze is indeed a gift. Just as readers have flocked to the historical novel, audiences have been dazzled by the story’s poignant messages of perseverance and hope. Carrie’s ending scene in a buggy heading out of town with the admonition—“Don’t Look Back,” is a hauntingly powerful visual. This is a fine work in full progress that is well on its way to finding its footing and even it wings to soar.
Blackberry Daze by Ruth P. Watson and Thomas W. Jones II . Music by William Knowles . Directed and choreographed by Thomas W. Jones II . Set design: Carl Gudenius and Shuxing Fan . Projection Design: Robbie Hayes . Costume design: Sigridur Johannesdottir . Lighting: Alexander Keen . Sound design: Gordon Nimmo-Smith . Production stage manager: David Elias . Produced by MetroStage . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.