HUSTLE The Musical, one of the more than 100 shows in this year’s 10th anniversary DC Black Theatre & Arts Festival, is a sparkling example of the festivals mission to produce new works. Being workshopped here in DC, this show has stepped out on faith and raised the roof, delivering a fun-filled theatrical experience.
Written and directed by Desi P. Shelton and composed by lyricist Jamal P. Dickerson, the entire artistic design team combine their formidable talents to bring the stories of Nikki Fortune’s novel HUSTLE to life through musical interludes, music, dance and lots of hustle.
An energetic bunch of 20 players, accompanied by a blasting five-piece ensemble, bounce with an exuberance that’s felt as much as seen. They are terrific. The show’s engaging songs and choreography are filled with buoyant inspiration as the artists present characters whose lives are shaped by southern fields and then adjust to the urban flow.
The story takes place during the momentum of the 1930’s Great Black Migration north, in this case from Hustle, Virginia (yes, actually a place) to Philadelphia.
The play starts off with wooden barrels flanking both sides of the stage. Carla and her many sisters and brother tussle and play in a protected and loving community of cousins and friends. Still lurking beneath this veneer of safety, treachery pokes its head: the dangers of molestation, a hooded Klansman, and even a reference to the Confederacy’s longing for the comfort of the good ‘ole days, urging fieldworkers to stay in the fields and be thankful!
Once the migrants drop their emotional and mental shackles, the new arrivals light up the Philly juke joints and swing to jazzy beats. Carla gets a job in the secretarial pool and enjoys the good life, all while justifying her absence from all the children left behind. In the poignant song, “Lost Without Your Mom”, HUSTLE shows the impact on youngsters when parents leave to provide financial support.
Through it all, the playful music heightens the story and the choreography and movement synchronize with a gospel flair and knockdown funny passages. Writer/director Desi P. Shelton carefully crafts just the right tone for the scenes and characters.
Costumes range from literal gunnysacks, overalls and bandannas of the rural south to elegant northern flashy attire with men in shimmery suits. Still, home beckons and Carla’s visit reminds her how much she’s left behind.
Talk about a busy hustle, the prolific writer, lyricist, composer and director duo of Shelton and Dickerson also have Princess and the Pea in the festival, (July 5 and 6), a retelling of the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale described as providing “a beautiful African collage of color.” These shows and the incredibly talented Chester Gregory in the The Eve of Jackie are treats at the end of this year’s 3 week Festival. As Crys Brown, President of the festival’s parent organization, The Center for Black Arts and Culture, told DCTS of their mission, “If we don’t get these young folks in, theater will die,” she says. “We have to keep them involved and engaged. One of the ways we do that is with youth volunteers at the festival, because we offer community service hours. We need to keep this going so the art form doesn’t die—especially urban theater. We need to keep that going with each generation.”