Somebody cared enough about a young black girl killed by a white cop in the powder keg summer of 1969 to give her a story.
Nothing much was known about the girl—just her name, age and how she died. But she matters.
Playwright Monica Bauer gives Vivian flesh, passion and purpose in the affecting play Vivian’s Music 1969, brought to brimming life by The Essential Theatre in residence at the Anacostia Playhouse throughout the month of July.
Staged simply by director Glory Kadigan with a cloth backdrop and a single chair, Vivian’s Music bounces between 14-year-old Vivian Strong (Kailah S. King) and legendary jazz drummer Luigi Wells (Russell Jordan), who may be her absent father.
As played with fidgety adolescent energy by King, Vivian is a spitfire. Not afraid to speak her mind or listen to the music she loves—jazz—in addition to Motown hits, Vivian embodies that all-too-brief time in a young girl’s life when she’s full of herself and full of her power. She’s confident, bursting with dreams and plans—it’s a wonderful time, but doesn’t last long, before life and gender roles slap a girl down.
But for now, we have Vivian in all her jazz-loving, independent splendor, determined to live up to her potential and not make the same mistakes her mother and older sister did. King portrays Vivian’s resigned mother, who works in a cereal factory in Omaha, Nebraska, and her sister, who wants to be a famous singer before reality crashes in. King also brings liveliness and vulnerability to Vivian’s boyfriend DeWayne, who is torn between revolutionary politics with the Black Panthers and wanted to be a musician.
On the other side of the stage—and spectrum—is Luigi Wells, played with style and sensitivity by Russell Jordan. His story of survival in the music business and in the white man’s world is a hard one, and his road is pitted with success (he played with the jazz greats and drummed once for the Beatles), compromises and a circuitous trail back to Omaha, where he works to keep his mother’s Dreamland Ballroom open after her death. To pay the back taxes on the club, Luigi gets a job teaching rock and roll drums (“it’s easy…just a 4/4 beat,” he shrugs), to a Beatles-crazy teenage girl of Polish-American stock.
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As tensions between the police and black neighborhoods escalate, Vivian struggles to keep the music bubbling inside her and Luigi struggles to keep his music alive. Their lives run on a parallel track throughout the play and you can see their similarities and shared rhythms.
In its 85 minutes, Vivian’s Music packs in a lot of story, not just Vivian and Luigi’s, but sidebars on Vivian’s sister and mother, Luigi’s accordion-playing employer George, racial and ethnic tensions, the Black Panthers, the British invasion and a pointed rebuke about white jazz men—such as the great Dave Brubeck—not being “real” jazz and a sellout.
Vivian’s Music 1969 from The Essential Theatre closes July 28, 2019. Details and tickets
Luigi’s journey is richly detailed, especially when he talks about his mother and divulges his talent for speaking to white people, which he says is “lying, but with panache.” Vivian’s is not as luxurious because it is brief—we get a glimpse of her potential and constant need to see “what’s what,” which causes her to slip out of her mother’s apartment to go to the Dreamland Ballroom and roam the streets.
Vivian’s Music rambles and you’re not always sure how cohesively the two parts work together since at times the connection seems a little contrived and forced. Yet it is the big picture that makes the play something that lingers in the mind like a bittersweet melody. That someone gave that little black girl who was shot by white cops a story, a life that counted and was so much more than a crime statistic.
Vivian’s Music 1969 A Fantasia for Two Actors by Monica Bauer . Director: Glory Kadigan. Featuring: Russell Jordan and Kailah S. King. Costume Designer: Janet Mervin. Lighting Designer: Benjamin Ehrenreich. Sound Designer: Andy Evan Cohen. Technical Director: Demetrius Cole. Production Coordinator: Jennifer Jones. Stage Manager: Devonjena Wilson. Produced by The Essential Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
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