It’s a rare and unusual treat to dip into parts of history that have been cast aside, forgotten and ignored. There was a time when the circus coming to town was the most exciting thing around. The idea of black people actually taking the helm and being in charge of something so enthralling, calling the shots, and driving their own destiny in the days of racial persecution was practically unheard of.
Being part of a traveling troupe was an escape from wretched cotton fields and provided somewhat decent sustenance, even though the conditions were still dirt-poor and wretched.
The characters in this timely new work are inspired by the great grand-parents of the talented playwright, Steven Butler, Jr., adding a poignancy to the struggles and the powerful scenes. There’s enough rich material here for a two or even three-part saga, thus the extended three+ hour length. As long as patrons are prepared to settle in and sit a spell, they will be amply rewarded peeking through the tent curtains of The Very Last Days of the First Colored Circus.
The play opens with a Big Top introduction of each of the characters by charismatic ringmaster Ollie Thomas played with zeal by Miles Folley, dressed in a regimented jacket sprucing up his overalls – a black man in charge and calling the shots. Folley is fully in command with crisp articulation and welcoming gestures mesmerizing every man, woman and child within range of his booming voice and penetrating gaze.
In the age of rampant racial subjugation, even in Southern Maryland, one can hardly imagine what it meant for the masses to see a “colored” showman commandeering the crowd to a frenzy. Little did the public know how much Thomas had to scrimp to develop the circus acts, how he was cheated at every turn and that his only way out of financial ruin was to sell the precious cargo to a white unscrupulous dealer, Benjamin Boswell (Pat Martins) to stay afloat. Boswell is demonized to the point of parody and it’s clear that Ollie’s dreams to repay the debt to reclaim his property is and will always be a dream totally deferred.
Deal with the devil notwithstanding, the show goes on (and on), complete with vaudeville performers Pickles and Pumpkin played by Charles W. Harris, Jr and powerhouse vocalist Corisa Myers; Tumbler, a primate-styled acrobat played by Obinna Nwachukwu; Birdie, a young ingénue being groomed for success (Abiola Yetunde), a supposed Native American Princess in obligatory braids and buckskin, an appealing Sara Hernandez and the show stopping chanteuse out of Louisiana Ruby Dyson, played to the hilt by Ayanna Hardy (reminding me of a sultry young D.C. Native, Taraji Henson)!
The rest of the ensemble help to propel the story, with Robert Hamilton as Colby Boswell, the kind-hearted abused son who proves that Boswell is an equal opportunity tormentor. Suzanne Edgar plays well-meaning socialite Lenora intent on being crowned at the County Fair, accompanied by her side-kick friend Daphne played with wry delivery by Jenna Murphy. Mandrill Solomon plays a helping hand while Brittany Nicole Timmons is a compelling Madame Zola in her several meaningful moments. There’s never a false moment from any of the cast, and director Courtney Baker-Oliver is the talented ringmaster to get the best performance out of each one of them.
One of Baker-Oliver’s unique gifts is being able to excise the emotional nuggets out of interpersonal interactions and bring the audience into the scenes with realism and care. Even when the passages are thrust into the scenes awkwardly, once the characters begin, the messages come through with clarity. There are obviously too many characters and subplots to tell a tight story but Baker-Oliver uses his storytelling skills to help smooth through the rough passages.
One of the many exciting elements of the show is the sense of place for the circus in 1927. Hearing the characters describe the southern aspects of Maryland, specifying La Plata, and acknowledging the backwards nature of rural currently “suburban” towns was truly eye-opening. (I can’t confirm the origin of Minstrel streets in Columbia, and Germantown MD, but one can surmise?). In some ways, Maryland was as racially castigating as Mississippi where white patrons expected to be entertained and not threatened by any semblance of racial equality, thus, making the case for the performers to blacken their faces with burnt cork, in one of the most insightful passages I’ve ever seen of this strange act. The script gets across the enormity of degradation of blackface when the character Essie, already demeaned with the moniker “Pumpkin” absolutely refuses to submit to the owner’s demands of the emotionally devastating practice.
The set is multilayered and as hard working as the cast, with a remnant of hay bales front right serving as an additional stage. The scattered tables and chairs accommodate the numerous activities, and a full platform stage in the back is creatively designed and effectively used for the various performances. Lighting by Jerry M. Dale, Jr relayed sinister moments as well as joyful playful bright sunny times.
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The Very Last Days of the First Colored Circus
closes March 5, 2017
Details and tickets
While ringmaster Ollie Thomas tries valiantly to regain his circus, he is just as determined in pursuing Ruby. Also, young Colby works up enough courage to approach the gorgeous and rich Ms. Lenora. In one of the most humorous passages, Ruby and Essie provide much needed grooming for Lenora to have a fighting chance in her talent competition at the Fair.
On the more serious side, Tumbler’s story helps to propel the piece. A physical marvel while mentally challenged, he naively believes that his beloved Grandmother was rescued from the historic Texas floodwaters and is waiting for him at home. The old treacherous Benjamin Boswell lures Tumbler along with fabricated letters from his Gram, that he can’t read, while firmly holding Ruby in a grip of degradation in a wretched scene of vile subjugation. All told, there’s a little bit of everything here with ending scenes that lurch towards conclusion. The piece is chock full of talent yes, but a three and ½ hour delivery is a lot for one sitting.
At the same time, the production is also entertaining with a full slate of songs both classic early blues of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, to Stevie Wonder’s “Songs from the Tree of Life,: and original songs by Baker-Oliver, Butler and Christopher John Burnett steeped in the early styles but with modern text and sensibility.
The Very Last Days is a profoundly engaging work with promise and potential. This initial showing proves that Butler has the grit and talent to go far. Here’s hoping that his next version will be tight enough to soar to the Big Top.
The Very Last Days of the First Colored Circus . Written by Steven A. Butler, Jr . Directed by Courtney Baker-Oliver . Cast: Ayanna Hardy; Miles Folley; Robert Hamilton; Jenna Murphy; Corisa Meyers; Charles W. Harris, Jr; Suzanne Edgar; Sara Hernandez; Obinna Nwachukwu; Brittany Timmons; Pat Martin; Mandrill Solomon; Abiola Yetunde . Assistant Director – Desiree Dubose . Musical Direction – Christopher John Burnett and Wilkie Ferguson . Choreography by Raquis Petree . Stage Manager: Brandyn Ashley Marshall . Costume and Properties- Courtney Baker-Oliver and Steven A. Butler, Jr . Lighting Design – Jerry M. Dale, Jr . Sound Design – Eric Wells and Aaron Gerald . Produced by Restoration Stage . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.