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Reviews 2013-2019

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Perfect Weather - With an adaptation of The Snowy Day and Other Stories, Dallas Children's Theater and Soul Rep Theatre Company find holiday bliss.

By Jill Sweeney
Published Thursday, December 13, 2018

It’s a thankless task, adapting a classic; the purists will hate any changes, but if you hew too close to the original, well, why even bother? Thankfully, Dallas Children’s Theater and Soul Rep Theatre Company have collaborated to find a perfect balance, putting up Jerome Hairston's adaptation of Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day and Other Stories that is full of all the heart and spirit of the original with their own particular spin.

The production details the everyday adventures of Keats’ most frequent subject, a little boy named Peter. The show begins with Keats’ most famous work, The Snowy Day. In it, little Peter (Gerald Taylor II) wakes up one morning in his Brooklyn apartment to find a miracle outside his window: fresh snow. Waving goodbye to his mother (Jori Jackson) and donning his trusty red snowsuit, Peter ventures out to explore this wonderland, making tracks in the fresh snow, avoiding the big kids’ snowball fights, building a snowman, and making snow angels. Peter comes home to his warm house to tell his mother all about his adventures while having a nice hot bath. Peter’s adventures continue through the show, as he learns to whistle so he can call his dog Willie, finds a pair of motorcycle goggles that he and his best friend Archie have to keep out of the clutches of the big kids (with Willie’s help, of course), and fights a rainstorm to send an invitation to his friend Amy for his birthday party. While the adventures are on a small-scale, the stakes always stay high.

Under the direction of Soul Rep Artistic Director and co-founder Guinea Bennett-Price, the show utilizes a clever mix of live action and puppetry, both shadow puppets and handheld puppets (design by Kevin Copenhaver and Christine Campbell), to create action that bursts off the stage into the audience. The shadow puppets are beautifully evocative of Keats’ original illustrations, and the handheld puppet of Willie the dog—operated by actor Aaron Jay Green, who otherwise served as the primary narrator for the production—was by far the audience’s favorite element. Every time he left the stage, I heard more than one child ask, “Where did the doggie go?”

The performers were uniformly good, childlike without being cloying—very tricky. Taylor convincingly transitions Peter from a very young child at the beginning of the production—so young he doesn’t understand where the snowball he brought inside and kept in his pocket overnight went—to an older boy concerned with how his friends will react to him inviting a girl to his birthday party. Jori Jackson portrayed not only Peter’s mother, but co-narrated several segments with Green, and played Peter’s friends Archie and Amy, giving a distinct flavor to each character.

The set design (scenic design by Josh Smith) is simple, but effective, using the burnt orange, lavender, and yellow aesthetic Keats favored in many of his illustrations, and using simple indicators to clue the audience in that the show was transitioning to a new segment—a snow drift gave way to a street light, and so on. And the costume design (Niki Hernandez-Adams), too, evokes the books—Peter’s iconic snowsuit is the perfect shade of orangey red, and the rest of the cast is pitch-perfect in their 60s/70s duds. Another important element is the lighting design (Aaron Johansen)—the gobos used to create a heavy snowstorm, covering the stage in falling snowflakes, provoked oos and ahs from the kids in the audience.

A very mild warning: although the show is marketed for kids “3 and up”, there are a few elements that might be slightly intense for the younger end of that spectrum. In the sequence where Peter and Archie find motorcycle goggles, Peter puts them on to pretend to drive a motor cycle, and there’s a sudden shift in lighting and a loud motorcycle engine noise that made a few little kids jump (including one of my own). And later in that same segment, there’s a chase sequence that my three and a half year old was a little scared by. These scenes really aren’t particularly scary, but if your child is sensitive to such things, be aware.

So come to Dallas Children’s Theater to enjoy this funny, action-packed co-production adapting the work of a trailblazer of children’s literature, and walk out with Peter and his friend into the deep, deep snow. You won’t regret the trip.

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Drink It Up! Soul Rep Theatre Company nicely handles Pearl Cleage's early work Bourbon at the Border.


By Janice L. Franklin
Published Thursday, February 14, 2019

Pearl Cleage has framed her play Bourbon at the Border, given an area premiere by Soul Rep Theatre Companyas a story of “the ghosts of a Mississippi summer.” The script is informed by the experiences of Fannie Lou Hamer and countless others, as Cleage tells their collective story through her characters, May and Charlie Thompson (Renee Micha’el and Angelo Reid), Rosa (Contessah Irene) and Tyrone (Jerrold Trice). The 1997 play assumes the audience will have a basic awareness of the uncelebrated part of our 1960s Civil Rights Movement history, but this is an assumption which can no longer be made.

June 9, 1963, Fannie Lou Hamer and other civil rights activists were traveling from South Carolina through Winona, Mississippi, following a voter registration workshop. They were sitting in the wrong seats on a Greyhound bus (seats they refused to relinquish) on the wrong side of town. That evening ended with their arrest and with a beating of Ms. Hamer that was so vicious she lost vision in one eye and suffered irreversible kidney damage. This cruelty came one year after Ms. Hamer was sterilized without her knowledge as part of Mississippi’s effort to control the number of black births. Instead of beating her himself, the sheriff, who was white, forced other black inmates to beat her to the point of unconsciousness.

America was set to hear Ms. Hamer’s story through a live television broadcast at the 1964 Democratic National Credentials committee, but upon learning that she was slated to speak, President Johnson called an impromptu press conference so no one in the television audience would hear her. Silencing.

Bourbon at the Border is at its core a love story. May and Charlie are two ordinary people struggling to live out what was left of their lives following their extraordinary 1964 excursion to register black Mississippians to vote. Tyrone is designing a future which will make his Vietnam tour worth the sacrifice. Rosa seeks a place in the promised American dream.

The play is filled with references Cleage has sifted from the ashen stories of James Chaney, Andrew Schwerner and Andrew Goodman (more commonly referred to as the missing three civil rights workers). It is Friday evening in September 1994 in the Thompsons’ Detroit apartment. May is alone and anxiously awaiting the arrival of her husband who has been away in a mental hospital. Best friend Rosa drops by for a visit and upon hearing about Charlie’s release, becomes a little concerned for May’s safety. May becomes defensive at the suggestion that Charlie is a danger to anyone other than himself. Partly in an effort to distract May and partly to please herself, Rosa moves the conversation to her impending night out on the town with her boyfriend Tyrone.

Shortly after Charlie arrives, he begins his job search. May, fearing the harm stress might cause, tries to convince him to instead leave with her for Canada in pursuit of the dream they shared since their days at Howard University. All they have to do is drive across the Ambassador Bridge to Windsor, Ontario. But Charlie is obsessed with finding work and eventually lands a job as a truck driver, thanks to Tyrone’s recommendation to the boss.

The four friends are living their lives against the backdrop of unsolved murders of white men in Detroit. Bodies are mounting as is pressure on law enforcement to identify suspects. Rosa and Tyrone become leery of Charlie, considering him a logical suspect due to his mental instability. However, it is Tyrone who becomes the target of law enforcement.

During a tense exchange between May and Rosa, May finally talks about what caused Charlie’s mental breakdown, revealing that the root of his problems is enmeshed with what happened to her. It is at this point during her description of that one night in Mississippi that the influence of Fannie Lou Hamer’s experiences appears.

Cleage is a proven writer but this is not one of her best efforts. The first act is too long and lumbers along never, getting to the point, creating a pacing problem for actors to resolve. Under the direction of Anyika McMillan-Herod at the South Dallas Cultural Center, this cast responds to that challenge by not making the act any more tedious. The ensemble work during the first act is good, successfully establishing the quartet’s friendship and dreams.

Contessah Irene is delightful as Rosa and is the source of energy in the quartet, moving the dialogue along. She understands comedy and strikes the right balance in Rosa. Jerrold Trice brings levels to Tyrone without unnecessarily broadening the character. There is a lot of avoidance in Cleage’s writing, something Trice seems to understand.

May’s big reveal is the most powerful moment in the script. Music is an important part of the production, however hearing underscoring seep in under Micha’el’s monologue is unexpected and a little melodramatic. It isn’t needed—Micha’el does not require reinforcement in that moment.

Micha’el and Reid effectively establish the enduring love between May and Charlie, bringing the audience closer to understanding them as individuals and as a couple by the end of act one. In act two, some of that is lost as each moves toward a more overtly deliberate delivery with dramatic pauses and crossings, which slows the pace in a piece that is already longer than it needs to be.

Overall, this is an enjoyable production which educates and entertains, something Cleage is committed to in all of her writing. For whatever shortcomings the script holds, the cast gives these characters the resonance those who inspired never received, shattering the silence. 


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Run the World - Soul Rep Theatre Company opens its season with Lisa B. Thompson's Single Black Female, offering black women characters we don't often see.

By Janice L. Franklin
Published Thursday, November 15, 2018

Toni Morrison has said “If there is a book that you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” This is exactly what playwright Lisa B. Thompson did.

She had hoped to find representations of contemporary black middle-class women in African-American literature and performance while doing her doctoral research. Thompson was looking for the women she knew, women who were as bold and audacious as they were vulnerable and reflective. Not finding what she was looking for through the academic route, she decided to create characters who are representative of those real, existent yet largely invisible women. Women like Michelle Obama who are not rare but whose character profiles are not largely represented in the literature.

Single Black Female is a two-person dramatic comedy in which two modern women (who are also friends) talk about the romantic areas of their lives. Directed by Renee Miche’al, the Soul Rep Theatre Company production onstage at the South Dallas Cultural Center features Maggie Simmons Ward and Jaquai Wade Pearson in the roles of single black female 1 (SBF1) and SBF 2, respectively. Through them the audience meets an array of profiles who are black, white, young, old, male, female, gay and straight.

Thompson was heavily influenced by the recently deceased Ntozake Shange (with whom she studied at UCLA) and her seminal work for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. Thompson’s play does not try to mimic Shange’s work, but the influence is evident in that with each case the women are identifiable by their desires, choices and consequences—and not their names.

Structurally, Thompson’s play consists of 13 standalone scenes across two acts. Each scene’s title describes the issue or action to be observed: “Identity,” “Rappin’,” “Shoppin’,” “Sisterhood,” “Computer Love,” “The Date,” “Sexual Suspect,” “Holiday,” “Why I will Never Marry,” “Malcolm and My Other X’s,” “Sleepin’ with the Enemy,” “Mother Wit,” and “Pops.”

Thompson’s structure is clean and the scenes are distinct. Unfortunately, this is not what the audience sees in this production. Some of the directing choices distract and others confuse, which results in a play which has been curiously shaped. More importantly, some of these choices dull the comedy. What falls flat are literal vaudevillian visual references to funny lines, such as heads following an imaginary meteorite as it lands with a thunk.

The strength of this production resides with the actors who do their best to distinguish the scenes so the audience can know when one scene ends and another begins—but they need support. Sometimes a quick and simple blackout is the best way to go.

SBF2 (Jaquai Wade Pearson) desires everything, the family and career so her experiences and portrayals are opposite from those of SBF1. SBF1 (Maggie Simmons Ward), has ambivalence about anything traditional, especially marriage. Ward is a strong presence onstage, anchoring this production. She plays a wider variety of profiles and works hard to forge the conversation with SBF2. There is a disconnect however, a beat between Ward’s last words of the line and the response from Pearson. Instead of rich conversation, what too often gushes forth is merely an exchange of lines. It is hard for comedy to flourish under those circumstances and some of it does not here. Pearson’s best moments happen during monologues.

What does work well between the two is the sense of the characters’ strong friendship. For the playwright, the tightness between good friends is something too infrequently written for black female characters. Ward and Pearson bring that forward quite effectively.

Tonya Holloway has designed a sleek set which grounds the action socio-economically. Her choices of props and pieces are appropriate to the characters, strengthening the choices for the actors without getting in the way.

There is room for more of M. Scott Tatum’s nuanced lighting as it could be very helpful in separating the scenes in a clarifying way for the audience.

Single Black Female is enjoyable and with some tightening of pace, it could be even more impactful.

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It Takes a Village? Soul Rep Theatre Company explores gentrification in Katori Hall's beautifully written Hurt Village.


By Janice L. Franklin
Published Thursday, May 9, 2019

In 2002 the median family income in Memphis, Tenn., was 57.3K. To qualify for low income housing, a family of three could not earn more than $15.4K annually which is $322 per week. The family in Katori Hall’s play, Hurt Village, was forced to leave their home because the projects were being razed to accommodate a new development which would be called Uptown. Because the family was on the “Hope List,” they assumed they would move into the nearby suburb. This hope was pierced by a notification to the family’s matriarch, Big Mama (Monique Ridge-Williams) that she earned $387 too much money the last year. That is $7.44 per week. As a result, they were removed from the Hope List which meant by the end of the week, they would have no place to go once they vacated the premises.

This is called displacement due to gentrification and it is happening in most urban centers including Dallas, Texas. For this reason, Soul Rep Theatre Company included Hall’s play in their current season which appears onstage at the South Dallas Cultural Center, located in the heart of gentrification central—the Fair Park area. Jemal McNeil’s comfort with directing this piece comes partly from his familiarity with the effects of displacement on families.

Displaced in Hurt Village will be Big Mama, her great-grandchild thirteen-year-old Cookie (Sharvetta Clay-Harris), and Cookie’s mother, Crank (Anyika McMillan-Herod), whose real name we do not know. Crank was only thirteen when she delivered Cookie. Buggy (J.R. Bradford), Cookie’s father, is Big Mama’s grandson.

Katori Hall is not the first playwright to bring the story of gentrification to the stage. She falls in line behind August Wilson’s Two Trains Running which is also set in Memphis, and Ronel Remy’s This Place/Displaced. Bruce Norris gave a nod to Lorraine Hansberry with Clybourne ParkSideways Fences by Oscar Arguello has not gone unnoticed. What Hall brings is an unflinching reveal of the rawness of despair, hence the language of the play. The way these characters talk is the communicative style of that particular village. For all of their cutting bluster, overlapping and confusing relationships, they love each other in their own ways.

Life on Auction Street is never simple. It is the summer of 2002 in Memphis. Our narrator and aspiring rapper, Cookie, is trying out her newest rap rhyme in front of Big Mama’s place. Unexpectedly, Buggy comes home presumably from Iraq. Cookie doesn’t recognize him because she was only three when he left. Filling in the daddy gap a little bit has been Buggy’s friend and fellow hustler, Cornbread (RJay Colbert). Cornbread has dropped by after a long day of work at FedEx with his feisty and sometimes messy girlfriend, Toyia (Harmoni Hampton).

Outside, Ebony (Christian Riley) and Skillet (Jacobie Thornton) break into a hip-hopnitized version of the dozens. Drug king Tony C (Douglas Carter) saunters by, eying Cookie as ripe for the taking. One of Cookie’s rhymes describes their street as the Million Dollar Track because it is the place one can buy crack(cocaine), smack (heroin), dro (marijuana) and also be killed in the process.

Colbert and Bradford as Cornbread and Buggy, succeed in making the implausible believable—maintaining a friendship that is complicated by women shared. Riley and Thornton show the awkwardness of young boys draped with the pretension required to survive in a world of broken men.

Through her portrayal of Big Mama, Ridge-Williams demonstrates her understanding that desperation need not be the destroyer of strength. Her scene in the office of the housing authority was wonderfully powerful. M. Scott Tatum’s lighting design for that scene set the tone.

Little girls grow up quickly in places like Hurt Village. Harris’ blend of thorny naïveté stands as a counterweight to Ridge-Williams’ rooted determination. McMillan-Herod avoids the stereotypical ants-on-my-skin portrayal of a crack addict. Her physicality demonstrates Crank’s discomfort and lands somewhere between stereotype and unrealistic.

Adding to the complication is Toyia with her spice, humor and catalytic energy. Hampton gives her so many colors, fashioning her into that girl everybody knew growing up who could be your boo and make you want to strangle her at the same time.

The drug dealer was not menacing and he should have been. The costumes overall were appropriate to the characters but Tony C.’s costume leaned into the comical, which affected the audience’s impression of the character.

During a recent interview with Jemal McNeil, he spoke of African drumming and its cultural importance to the village concept. “Even though we are thousands of miles from Africa, we still have those drums inside us, moving us. When we hear them, we respond. It is spiritual.” Leo Hassan underscores part of the play with drumming. It needs no explanation, coming in and out unobtrusively.

This is a good production. Our narrator, Cookie, closes the play, bringing us through her childhood and into the present. Every major species in the animal kingdom expends great energy in finding the right place to nest because the quality of that nesting ground determines the survivability of the species—the children. These tiny villages should not be invisible. Even if their lives seem very different, they can be understood.

Hurt Village Play Raw and Compelling

May 22, 2019
By Loren Guillory May 15, 2019

Last week, I had chance to see Hurt Village, the Katori Hall play reproduced by Dallas’ own Soul Rep Theatre Company. The directors and cast did not disappoint. Hurt Village is an energy-packed, raw and edgy drama inspired by the true story of the gentrification of one of Memphis’ most notorious housing projects in the early 2000s. The story centers around 13-year-old Cookie, an aspiring rapper and flight attendant. Filled with humor and heartbreak, it artfully explores the nuances of life in the hood, while accurately capturing the colorful characters and abrasive language of its residents.

The set accurately depicted the faded stucco walls and outdated appliances found in housing projects. It was cozy and familiar to those who have ever lived in or visited a housing project, and it pulled the audience right into the story. The lighting reflected the somber and dismal mood of the hood as the residents awaited the demolition of the only home they’d ever known. African drums were used the capture the gravity and the drama of scenes throughout the play.

Sharvetta Clay made her role as Cookie believable and captured the attitude, curiosity, and innocence of a young teenage girl walking the thin line between puberty and adulthood. Though the story centers Cookie, Anyika McMillan-Herod was the shining star in this play as Crank, Cookie’s drug-addicted mother. McMillan-Herod captured the essence of a recovering addict who is one traumatic experience away from relapsing. Her clothes, hair, makeup, and demeanor are that of a woman who’s had a rough life but is trying her best to be a good mother. I was moved to tears as Crank begged Cookie’s father, Buggy, played by J.R. Bradford, to stick around for their daughter.

One scene that stood out against the rest was called “Fleas in a Jar.” In this scene, Cookie is testing a hypothesis for a science project. She captures nine fleas in a jar and holds them captive with a lid. The hypothesis states that if the fleas hit their heads enough times on lid of the jar while trying to escape, that they will cease attempts to escape, even when the lid is removed. The obvious parallels between the fleas and the mentality of oppressed peoples really hit home for the audience.

Though the play was a bit lengthy and a few cues were off, the actors did a great job staying in character and did not miss a beat. Directors Jemal Neil and Tonya Holloway allowed the actors to tell their stories in an authentic and compelling way. I’m looking forward to experiencing what Soul Rep Theatre Company will bring to the stage in its next season.

She and her mother live with her grandma, Big Mama, who makes just enough money to disqualify them for a housing voucher. As the date of their expected departure from Hurt Village looms closer, the pressures and temptations of survival in the hood gets real. During this time, Cookie meets her father for the first time and loses him again. Her mother, who has been clean for several years, battles drug addiction. Through it all, she holds onto hope that things will get better for her struggling family.

A glimpse of possibility: Soul Rep offers two of the three parts of Regina Taylor's 'The Trinity River Plays'

By Nancy Churnin- Dallas Morning News
Published March 24,2017

In many ways, the Dallas-based Trinity River Plays feels like Regina Taylor's homegrown take on A Long Day's Journey Into Night. Taylor's work has the uneven feel of a grand vision executed at the start of a promising writing career, while Eugene O'Neill's play was that of a master at the uncompromising and virtuoso end. But what they have in common is a brutal excavation into the ways a family's dark, interconnected secrets can warp individual lives. 

Structurally, the three short plays that make up The Trinity River Plays echo the three-act framework of O'Neill's masterwork,  but Soul Rep Theatre Company is producing just the first two one-acts in the trilogy, which Dallas Theater Center premiered in 2010. The first two shows, Jar Flyand Rain, give a tantalizing taste of the work's potential and a worthy opportunity for this small, determined company to dig into challenging material at its South Dallas Cultural Center home. But the story remains unfinished without the final play, Ghost(story).

Kimberly Nicole and Takenya Banks play Iris and Jasmine in Rain, the second of the one-act plays in The Trinity River Plays  by Regina Taylor, presented by Soul Rep Theatre Company at South Dallas Cultural Center through April 2.

At the heart of the story, which is for mature audiences only, is Iris (Kimberly Nicole), a 17-year-old writer with big dreams who looks up to her sardonic older cousin Jasmine (Takenya Banks). Jasmine loves Iris but resents her innocence. Jasmine can't seem to stop herself from finding ways to break Iris' spirit in Jar Fly for reasons that resolve too patly with a confession in Rain.  

Anyika McMillan-Herod's sensitive direction brings out bursts of beauty from an ensemble where the women, in particular, are given opportunities to express their dreams, frustration and longing. 

 

In the Cards: Soul Rep Theatre Company closes its season with a strong production of Suzan-Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog.

by Janice L. Franklin
published Sunday, April 10, 2016

Lincoln (Djoré Nance) and Booth (Brentom Jackson) were named by their father as a joke. Their parents were less than ideal and eventually abandoned the boys when they were 13 and 16. Lincoln, the oldest, became highly skilled at three-card monte as a way of earning money to support them. His goal was survival and avoidance of being placed in “the system” by Child Protective Services. Booth wants very much to become skilled at three-card monte but Lincoln, fully aware of the danger and futility the game presents, does not want to teach him. Following a traumatic incident that resulted in the death of one of his partners, Lincoln abandoned the cards and began working a “sit-down job with benefits” at an arcade as a Lincoln impersonator in whiteface. Booth, having dropped out of school and having no legally marketable skills, is a thief, boosting everything from food to clothes and jewelry. We meet these characters as their circumstances teeter-totter.

For this story to have any chance of succeeding at all, the audience must believe the two men are brothers. Otherwise it does not work. Jackson and Nance are convincing. As sibling tension oozes in, we recognize it such that even when it seems inappropriate to do so, we laugh at it.

Parks’ piece has been described as a dark, comic fable. Indeed, she has expressed a deep love for mythology, in particular Greek mythology and tales of the Cyclops brothers. For all of its darkness, Topdog/Underdog is also funny in ways that when considered within the context of family relationships, are understandable, and normal.

This is not a traditional play. Parks sees it as a sleight-of-hand much like three-card monte. The idea of an African-American male working as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator in whiteface is disconcerting on a number of levels. As Lincoln puts it “People are funny about they Lincoln shit. It’s historical. People like they historical shit in a certain way. They like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book, not raggedy and bloody and screaming.”

Nance plays Lincoln like vinegary wine. On the surface, smooth with brotherly concern but in actuality, rancid and bitter. Jackson’s Booth is waveringly sympathetic. He tries to continue skipping over the fissures in the fantasy he has woven for protection. Nance and Jackson draw the audience in, giving them reasons to care about the characters, to hope against hope for them even though it is clear they are not on a sustainable path. There is a moment in the play when the brothers turn animalistic toward each other. Jackson and Nance create a sense of uneasiness for the audience without telegraphing the ending.

Topdog/Underdog was written in 1999, but it remains resonant today and in some ways, perhaps more so. Seventeen years later, Nance and Jackson are working to ensure that we do not forget Lincoln and Booth or the hands they were dealt.

Soul Rep Theatre Company opens its season with an uneven revival of The Colored Museum, but the satire holds up brilliantly 30 years after its debut.

by Mark Lowry
published Friday, August 12, 2016

Dallas — George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum debuted 30 years ago, in 1986, as a satire of the experience of being black in America as seen through “exhibits.” For this exhibition, the playwright is the artist; the director the curator. If it were updated for the hashtag era, we’d no doubt see exhibits related to Black Lives Matter and rampant whitewashing in Hollywood and onstage—not to mention in textbooks.

But what’s there in the 11 exhibits is exceedingly relevant, sometimes in small ways that most non-blacks haven’t thought much about and could lead to justifiably uncomfortable conversations on social media. For instance, if you haven’t had a black friend explain why white preoccupation with their hair texture is annoying, then you might want to learn more about that.

The script was the first play Soul Rep Theatre Company produced back in 1997, and now that the company is back after its decade-long hiatus, it’s fitting that they’ve restaged it for the group’s 10/20 season (10th season, 20th year). The production, co-directed by Dee Hunter-Smith and Rene Jones, has a number of bumps and overall unevenness, but I’d encourage any white theater patron whose main experience with black theater is Dreamgirls or Ain’t Misbehavin’ to take it in.

Wolfe’s script calls for three women and two men to play the various roles, and for no intermission. Soul Rep doesn’t adhere to either of these suggestions, but no harm. The ensemble consists of Rene Jones, Anyika McMillan-Herod, Shayla Kelley, Kazy Amoi, Emir Price, Douglas Carter, Monique Ridge-Williams, Yolanda Davis and dancer Terrance M. Johnson. The young Qaadir Muhammed plays drums, crucial in the first exhibit.

That scene, “Git on Board,” is one of the show’s laughter-through-uncomfortable-tears moments. A cruise ship attendant, Miss Pat (played by Jones), gets the audience ready for a voyage on Celebrity Slavehip, “departing the Gold Coast and making short stops at Bahia, Port au Prince and Havana, before making our final destination in Savannah.”

She urges the audience to fasten our shackles as she explains what the future holds for the newly arrived Africans, who will go through many, many struggles (Jim Crow, Civil Rights) and highpoints (Martha and the Vandelas, Diahann Carroll), and will eventually make a fortune thanks to an air-filled bouncing sphere that we now know as a basketball.

Some of the more humorous exhibits that follow include: “Cookin’ with Aunt Ethel,” a cooking show with McMillan-Herod as Ethel; “The Photo Session,” in which two models (Kelley and Amoi) live inside the glamorous world of Ebony Magazine, safe from the real world; and “The Hairpiece,” with McMillan-Herod as a woman at her dressing table and in the middle of two talking wig stands (Williams and Kelley), trying to explain which is better for her to wear tonight, the afro or the long, flowing hair. With these, the first act turns out to be the stronger half, with McMillan-Herod giving the standout performances.

Emir Price isn’t as successful in “Soldier with a Secret,” a powerful monologue about black men dying in Ameican wars; and the hilarious piece about a drag queen, “The Gospel According to Miss Roj,” suffers from a performance by Carter that’s neither bold nor fabulous enough.

In the second act, Kelley is mesmerizing in “Permutations,” as a Southern girl using an egg metaphor for the optimism she feels about the babies she’ll have and will confidently let fly out into a world that values them. Less successful is “Lala’s Opening,” in which Davis is a respected international singer/entertainer, along the lines of Cesaria Evora. Singing is not the strong suit of this cast in general. 

The final scene, “The Party,” with McMillan-Herod as a woman who can’t stop dancing and implores the cast and audience to celebrate the power in my “colored contradictions” is stirring.

Two other scenes in the second act stand out.

In “Symbiosis,” a man entering the business world (played by Amoi, in his best performance of the show) is confronted by his inner youth (played by Price) when he’s considering trashing all the things that attributed to making him the proud black man he became. Everything from a dashiki and Converse All-Stars to Temptations and Stevie Wonder records. “I’ll only be black on weekends or holidays,” he convinces himself. Move that into the current conversation about how black men have to present themselves in this country to feel safe. Poignant.

The satirical sharpness of “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play” remains a highlight. It’s a parody of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, with Davis as Mama, Carter as “Walter-Lee-Beau-Willie-Jones,” and McMillan-Herod and Jones as mash-ups of Raisin’s Ruth and Beneatha. Both women are confident in their Africanism, like Beneatha. But the point here is not to make fun of Hansberry’s groundbreaking play, but rather non-black audiences’ unwillingness to watch black theater in which the performers aren’t singing and dancing.

It’s amazing that it took more than 40 years after Raisin for a black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog), and we still see that white audiences, especially, are uncomfortable with seeing real black life, both struggles and celebrations, portrayed on stage. Here’s hoping Soul Rep and the area’s other black theaters, African American Repertory Theater and Jubilee Theatre among them, can change that. 

On another note, Soul Rep's publicity photos for this show, of these actors/characters as iconic paintings, is genius: Miss Roj as da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," Aunt Ethel as Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring," and especially Junie the soldier as Magritte's "The Son of Man," with a bag of Skittles instead of an apple. Terrific reference to Trayvon Martin.

Soul Rep Theatre Company engagingly tells new versions of African-American folktales in Her Stories at the South Dallas Cultural Center.

by Janice L. Franklin
published Sunday, February 7, 2016- THEATER JONES

Dallas — Virginia Hamilton once described her association with the past as it moving with her despite the fact that she removes herself from it. “It’s light often shines on this night traveler; and when it does, I scribble it down,” she wrote.

Thus one can understand her fascination with the tales told by slave women and girls that are now part of our oral histories. In Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales, Hamilton re-presents African-American fairy tales and myths primarily through lenses of women and girl characters. Tonya Davis-Holloway has selected six of these stories and adapted them for the stage in Virginia Hamilton’s Her Stories. Davis-Holloway’s original adaptation was first presented by Soul Rep Theatre Company in 1998. This new adaptation now onstage at the South Dallas Cultural Center includes original music by Christopher Mazen.

Directed by Anika McMillan-Herod, this production is framed by music that has been arranged by Nathan Young and performed by the cast of (in alphabetical order): Kassy Amoi, Karmela Berrones, Yolanda Davis, Terrence Dean, Jr., Zalayna Jenkins, Rene Miche’al, Dennis Raveneau and Bonnie Scott. Also appearing in the cast is Soul Rep co-founder and Artistic Director, Guinea Bennett-Price.

Hamilton’s father was a musician as were her children, so it makes sense that Davis-Holloway would have chosen music as the connective tissue for this piece. Music and dance are mainstays of the African-American tradition and perfect accompaniments for the stories, but the strength of this piece resides within the spoken words that carry the tales. The voices of this cast are wonderfully sonorous and colorfully dramatic. These stories, intended primarily for children, are deliciously seductive for adults as well as children thanks to the fun-filled dramatizations by this cast.

 

Hamilton was fascinated with the diverse portraits of women that appeared in the slaves’ tales, and she sought to recreate those in her stories. Davis-Holloway has arranged the selected tales in a way that showcases the prism-like qualities of the female:  strength, intelligence, persistence, determination, kindness, and cleverness.

The six tales that have been adapted for this play are “Little Girl and Buh Rabby,” “Miz Hattie Gets Some Company,” “Good Blanche, Bad Rose, and the Talking Eggs,” “Malindy and the Devil,” “Lonna and Cat Woman,” and “Woman and Man Started Even.” These tales arose out of plantation life and were told mostly by slave girls seeking escape through their imaginations.

Hamilton grouped her stories into five sections, animal tales, fairy tales, supernatural, folkways and legends, and true tales. In some instances, human characteristics were assigned to animals, objects or to a god (anthropomorphism). The slaves worked with things they saw around them, including animals. The qualities they observed in animals appeared in many of their stories. In “Miz Hattie Gets Some Company,” God (Raveneau) creates the world’s first cat from a glove.

“Lonna and Cat Woman” is Davis-Holloway’s adaptation of Hamilton’s “Catskinella,” (a variation of Cinderella). “Good Blanche, Bad Rose, and the Talking Eggs” is based on the Creole story Talking Eggs which was initially collected by Alcee Fortier and published in 1895.

“Malindy and Little Devil” which dates back to 1890, is an example of the retelling of Biblical stories in the African-American folk tales. This tale is a revision of the story of Faustus, and traces back to the state of Virginia, the Carolinas and to Georgia.

“Woman and Man” originated in Tennessee during the 1890s. It is a creation myth informed by the story of the Garden of Eden. As shaped here it promotes the idea of gender equality as God’s original intent, and how that equality was perverted by the fallen angel, Devil.

Technical standouts in this production are the set (which according to the program results from a group effort of Johnny Wolf, McMillan-Herod, Guinea Bennett-Price, Douglas Carter and Rebecca Jeffrey) and the very well-balanced sound design of Brent Nance

 

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Naughty but Nice: There’s no holiday like Christmas at a South Dallas juke joint

by Mike McGee
Published 12/28/2015 - THE DALLAS EXAMINER

In the musical Naughty but Nice, The Soul Rep Theater Company – and “Ms. D,” the fictitious proprietor of equally fictional The Yellow Rose Lounge and Grill – offered audiences the flavor of a South Dallas juke joint last week at The South Dallas Cultural Center.

The cabaret-style theater piece, written by Anyika McMillan-Herod and directed by Phyllis Cicero, presented to audience members a glimpse of the nightspot locked down due to dangerous weather on Christmas Eve.

In fact, some audience members were able to be seated at tables on the stage that served as the floor of The Yellow Rose. Members of the crowd became customers in the lounge and participants in some of the acts presented.

Naughty but Nice involves the “last hurrah” for owner Kathleen Devereaux/Ms. D (Monique Ridge-Williams) and her regular customers where song and dance acts are part of the nightly entertainment.

As Ms. D’s customers lament the passing of the Lounge due to the redevelopment of the neighborhood, the holiday chill in the air, mixed with a warmth provided by friendship – and a stiff drink, or several – encourages the patrons to sing, dance and celebrate the Christmas season with some favorite yuletide songs as well as a few selections that add spice to the evening.

Along with the musical numbers, supported by a live combo of musicians, there is a sentimental lesson within the story about miracles as well as criticism on how changes in South Dallas are endangering traditional, established neighborhood businesses.

“I feel, we feel, that we’re being pushed out for progress,” the character of Chuck (Terrance Knight) calls out near the end of the show as he mourns the potential fate of real-life spots like The Yellow Rose.

“Yes, yes. It’s changing so very much,” commented actress Shayla Kelley after the show upon the transformations occurring in the neighborhoods of the real city.

“Expanding; change in population. It’s growing so much,” she continued.

The production mostly served as a holiday showcase to present the vocal skills of numerous Metroplex-based performers. McMillan-Herod created a show that is warmhearted in its sentiment and varied in the musical material. Holiday favorites such as The Christmas Song and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas were performed delightfully by the cast live.

Naught but Nice is both nice and naughty, however, and recommended by Soul Rep for a more adult audience.

There are more than a few flashes of risqué humor. Songs such as My Ding-a-ling and I Need a Man down My Chimney are performed along with the more traditional Christmas tunes. When the character of a drunken police officer begins singing Amazing Grace and ends up singing Trim Your Tree while doing a striptease, it is clear that the script was written for a select audience.

Kelley also touched on the subject of the adult content as she described how she prepared for her part as the earthy barfly Jazzmore.

“My character is drunk so I got drunk a little bit to see what that space is,” she remarked on her method to finding the essence of her decidedly warm and jolly role.

“Why is she here on Christmas Eve and spending it with these people?” Kelley wondered about a possible darker side to Jazzmore. “Why is she not at Christmas with her family?”

Nothing was outright offensive about the show – as long as viewers knew what they were in for – and the audience seemed to enjoy both the standard and the bawdy offerings.

The theater hopes to bring the show back for 2016 according to Guinea Bennett-Price, the artistic director of the company, who also played Gladys, the waitress of the lounge.

“Get the word out,” she stated.

Audiences will be pleased by the traditional music as well as the more modern interpretations of some songs, should the production indeed return next year. They will have a laugh at the mature material and have their heartstrings tugged with the overall tone of the production, too.

Perhaps Naughty but Nice is not a show for everyone, but for everyone who attends with an open mind and a desire to have fun, the musical is a nice addition to the already large lineup of Christmas shows found in local theaters.


Let Your Light Shine With The Shine Plays, Soul Rep Theatre Company introduces audiences to three one-acts, two of them remarkably relevant, by playwright Ted Shine.

by Mark Lowry
published Friday, April 17, 2015 - THEATER JONES

Dallas — The plays we consider major American classics are revived with great frequency, but it will always be important to introduce lesser-known works from the past to audiences who many not have read or seen them—or certainly not in a while.

That’s what Soul Rep Theatre Company achieves with three one-acts by Dr. Ted Shine, a figure in the Black Arts Movement who grew up in Dallas, and lives here now. The Shine Plays features two works, Contribution and Herbert III, that have become staples in educational and black theater. Another work from Shine’s trunk, The Woman Who Was Tampered with in Youth, written in the 1970s, is having its world premiere.

Anyika McMillan-Herod, one of the founders of Soul Rep—which made a welcome return in 2014 after a decade-long break—was a student of Shine’s at A&M Prairie View, and with Soul Rep’s staging at the Margo Jones Theatre, it’s clear the group is passionate about his work.

The first two plays, both directed by Richard Quadri, are remarkably relevant today.

In Contribution, set in the South in the 1960s as Jim Crow laws are crumbling, takes place in the kitchen of Ms. Grace Love (vickie washington), who, along with neighbor Katy (Renee Michéal), is fascinated—and maybe a little jealous—that her grandson Eugene (Jared Wilson) is part of a younger generation of activists who challenge authority by doing things such as sitting at the “whites only” counter. In Grace’s youth, speaking out wasn’t so easy. “The more we prayed, the worse things got,” she says.

There are several lines, like “when a black man speaks out they call him ‘communist’,” that could have come from today’s headlines.

While this generational difference is at the heart of the play—contrast that now with African-Americans who grew up in the ‘60s and are frustrated with younger generations who take so much for granted—there’s a delicious twist when Grace reveals her own brand of payback for decades of second-class citizen treatment. In this sense it recalls plays like Susan Glaspell’s 1916 one-act Trifles, with a sly nod to the idea that karma doesn’t always need to be called attention to.

Nicely directed and performed, Contribution is the best of the bunch.

Herbert III bears even more relevance. Set in an Oak Cliff bedroom in the 1970s, parents Margarette (Anyika McMillan-Herod) and Herbert (Douglas Carter) wake at 3 a.m. She’s concerned about their teenage son (he of the title) being out so late. She wants to call the hospitals and jails; he believes it will all work out. Besides, he has to get up early for work.

The idea of black parents having The Talk with their sons about how to act around police is, again, right out of the headlines, increasingly more so since the Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner incidents. The play hits on issues about black struggles, including workplace equity, and because Shine is a Dallasite, it’s fun to catch all the local references, such as Parkland, Oak Lawn and Richardson.

McMillan-Herod, full of motherly concern but also good humor, offers the best performance of the entire showcase in a lovely play that’s more lovely because of its timeliness.

The Woman Who Was Tampered with in Youth, directed by Guinea Bennett-Price and set in the South in the 1970s in Miss Alba Rucker’s (Rhonda Boutté) parlor, is an odd one. Like the other two, it gives us a strong woman character, and Boutté—who is Shine’s neice—is, as always, a fiery pistol.

She recounts the experience of the title with a potential boarder, Miss Simpson (Renee Michéal); and then the object of that story, Billy Bob Smith (a terrific Linus Spiller), shows up all these years later in a plot development that feels more contrived than it should be.

What happens will leave you with an overwhelming sense of discomfort, mostly because it’s antithetical to the confident, smart women of the other two plays. Where Contribution and Herbert III speak volumes about how much (or little) some things have changed, Woman probably won’t win points with anyone concerned about the lasting effects of sexual violence. It’s just creepy.

All three of these plays are set in rooms where conversations happen: kitchen, bedroom and parlor. It was smart for set designers Bennett-Price and Rebecca Breed to put all three sets on the small Margo Jones stage, all at once. This allows for scenic detail without bogging down in long set changes; but it also speaks to the idea of community.

These might be different houses and families, but there are many shared experiences, hopes and dreams.

Soul Rep's unsettling, powerful Shine Plays closes this weekend. Don't miss it.

The Shine Plays
Rating: 4 Stars out of 5

Christopher Soden
Dallas GLBT Arts Examiner

Soul Rep Theatre is currently staging three one act plays (at The Margo Jones at Fair Park) by Dr.Ted Shine, described as one of the trailblazers of Cintemporary Black Theatre by Artistic Director : Guinea Benett-Price. Each one is very different in tone, and make for a compelling, absorbing, engaging evening of theatre. First is Contribution, then Herbert III, then The Woman Who Was Tampered With in Youth. Each offers a sharp, sometimes funny, sometimes somber, sometimes angry, worldview with some kind of twist, some quirky turn that forces us to reconsider what came before.

Contribution is set in the kitchen of Mrs. Grace Love, during the 1960's, when her grandson, Eugene, is preparing to participate in the famous sit-ins that took place in thhe deep South, as a method of peaceful protest for the inequality African Americans must endure. Eugene is more than a little daunted, fearing he may get clobbered by over-zealous, racist cops, and the local sheriff in particular. Grace Love, ironically, cooks for the sheriff, and her family is puzzled by the employers she chooses to woEk for, considering their toxic level of prejudice, even for the Bible Belt. Eugene perceives his beloved grandmother as being somewhat out-of-touch, and perhaps too complacent in in a world where white supremacy and abuse is still prevalent. The more we learn, however, the more we realize how truly cunning, subtle and effective Mrs. Love is, when it comes to meting out justice.Contribution, is part drama, but it's mostly ironic comedy, black as pitch.

It's somewhere between midnight and 1 AM when Herbert III opens, which feels like a domestic sitcom, but actually has much more going on. Margarette is worried sick because Herbert Junior, their 19 year-old son is not back from work yet. She wakes her pore husband Herbert, who realizes his son can take care of himself. In some ways Herbert III is a gentle comedy about the nuts and bolts of marriage and family. Margarette prays, calls the hospital, the morgue, her mother, and frets herself half to death with her concern for her son's welfare. Herbert reassures her, tries to get some sleep, and maybe a little something something from his wife in the meantime. Herbert and Margarette are not that different from any middle-aged married couple, except they must also deal with the hazards, rage and frustration that comes from being lower on the foodchain. They want the best for their sons and a nurturing nest to live in, but it's difficult and painful when you're marginalized and persecuted at every turn. Today we call it “profiling” but it's been going on for a long, long time.Herbert III is a bittersweet, amusing reflection on the travails of raising a family in an ingnorant, backwards culture.

At the outset of The Woman Who Was Tampered With in Youth, she interviews a teacher who wishes to rent her extra bedroom. Alba's been drinking a bit, and she reveals that it's the horrible anniversary of a the day when a young man she knew, raped her and skipped town. While the teacher leaves to get her belongings (and move in) who should come calling but the criminal in question, Billy Bob Smith. She tries to throw him out, but he insists on explaining and apologizing. He descibes her as a kind of ice princess, lofty and unreachable. He says he didn't mean to rape her, he just got carried away. She loses her temper and jumps on top of him, forcing kisses and, in effect, shifting dominance in the “relationship.” Now she's the aggressor. Alba, now in her elder years, grew up in a time when a woman's honor was tied up entirely in her virginity. (Not that it's that much different for women today, but it's gradually, gradually changing.) If you were in any way complicit with a man's sexual advances before marriage, you were a slut, and damaged goods. So it's not exactly difficult to understand why Miss Alba Rucker tried to maintain an upright character. Giving a man permission to potentially deflower you was simply not an option in a misogynist patriarchy. And confusing sexual assault with unbridled passion is a dangerous myth. Or claiming intense love is an excuse for relinquishing culpability. All this being said, The Woman Who ….is an unsettling, surprising exploration of what the world does to us, when it views sex as intrinsically degrading and bestial.


GATOR AID WITH A HOSTILE HOLIDAY

by Mark Lowry
published Friday, December 19, 2014

A Hostile Holiday at Soul Rep Theatre Company

Dallas — You won’t find a more unusual holiday show than the one Soul Rep Theatre Company has resurrected from its trunk. A Hostile Holiday, at South Dallas Cultural Center, was originally written by Guinea Bennett-Price for an outreach program at Dallas Children’s Theater more than 10 years ago and was mostly seen by young audiences.

Now that Soul Rep is back they’ve dusted it off and expanded it (with the writing help of Camika Spencer) for an audience of a wider age range.

The story deals with two rival actor reptiles, Hostile Crocodile (Keith Price) and Agitator Alligator (Douglas Carter), in the bayou, as Hostile is trying to save his theater company Watermain Theatre (intended or not, gotta love the reference to Dallas’ Undermain Theatre). Colleen Crocodile (Lisa B. Whitfield) is trying to promote her belly cream, and so Hostile and Agitator compete over who should star in a commercial for it. That is complicated by serpent Slick Sid (Rachael Webb), who wants to turn the face-off into a pageant for a reality show. There’s no money in the theater, after all.

The wackiness is amped up with diva Mrs. Swamp Thing (Monique Ridge-Williams), Jefferson Frog (Mark Ewing), Mona Frog (Kendall Robertson) and a chorus of back-up Mosquitoes (played by Zalayna Antonia Jenkins, Genesis Williams, Zuri Williams and Brianna McCain).

Directed by Dee Smith and LaHunter Smith (Smith also choreographed), and with colorful, imaginative costumes by David Benn (the photos with this review don't represent them fully), the play is a bit too long with an odd distribution of text and songs (original music by Stephen Jeffrey, lyrics by Spencer and Keith Price). But it’s one of the best kinds of art intended for young audiences in that the young’uns will be delighted by the silliness, but the themes and best jokes are cleverly designed for adults.

Mixed in with those kid-friendly, fantastical characters doing wacky things and singing about them, there are messages about art vs. commerce, lowbrow vs. highbrow and the difficulties of funding and running an arts organization.

The cast has a ball with it, especially out-sized scene-stealer Ridge-Williams, Keith Price as the croc with standards, and Carter as the crotchety gator.

As for a Christmas tie-in? It’s not really there, but think of “holiday” in terms of a break from the normal workaday routine. People who have invested their lives in the arts never really have those, but it’s always fun to dream. 

Welcome Back, Soul Rep!
Soul Rep Theatre Company has a blazing return with its first New Play Festival in 11 years, the highlight being Anyika McMillan-Herod's The Ballad of Jane Elkins.

by Mark Lowry
published Saturday, August 2, 2014

Dallas — It’s great to see Soul Rep Theatre Company back on the scene with their first season since the company closed during their seventh season in 2003. Their eighth New Play Festival, playing this weekend at the Margo Jones Theater, is a reminder of how much they have been missed.

Of the four short plays on the program, one is absolutely stunning, two are satisfyingly successful and the other needs improvement. But that’s the beauty of such a collection of original work, it’s like the Texas weather; if you don’t like one play, wait a few minutes and it will change.

It begins with the weak link, When Going Green Goes ($#@!), by Guinea and Keith Price and directed by Keith Price. Guinea, a Soul Rep founder, is artistic director. What appears to have started out as an amusing commentary on the confusion over what materials can be recycled turns into a boss-from-hell story as Boss Lady (Patricia Hill) repeatedly shows favoritism to inept Sorter No. 1 (Douglas Carter), and not the better employee Sorter No. 2 (Yolanda Davis). There are some funny moments, such as the discussion of how certain items could be recycled into something else, such as condoms to balloons or Styrofoam balls into earrings.

Davis gives the standout performance, but it’s otherwise broadly acted, even for a work of broad comedy, and comes off as writing experiment that doesn’t go anywhere. No worries, that’s what these festivals are for.

That’s followed by the beautiful The Ballad of Jane Elkins by another Soul Rep founder, Anyika McMillan-Herod, directed by veteran actor and director Vickie Washington.

The work is based on the true, local story of slave girl Jane, who was hanged for murdering her owner Mr. Wisdom (David Benn) in Farmer’s Branch. McMillan-Herod learned of her story in the company’s ongoing research of Dallas black history. One of the group’s signature original works, The Freedmans (1998), based on the stories of the freed slaves buried in unmarked graves at what is now the intersection of Interstate 75 and Lemmon Avenue, was revived in 2013 to announce the comeback of Soul Rep.

In this play, Jane (Mia Antoinette) is purchased by Mr. Wisdom (David Benn) and becomes a surrogate mother to slave children Sam (Esau Price) and Lis-Beth (Taylor Waller) who lost their mother and are raised by Wisdom, a man who seems loving and trustworthy. At the very beginning, we see the noose, Jane slowly step up and place it around her neck, and her death. As her body swings after the floor drops, she walks out on the stage to look back on her life and this story, hauntingly dragging the noose everywhere she goes.

Monique Ridge-Williams plays Ancestor, a voodoo woman who comments through her chants and gourd-shaking. An especially memorable moment comes with the chilling, approving look on her face as Jane decides to do the deed they both know must happen.

Fine performances all around, but recent Southern Methodist University graduate Antoinette, with intense eyes that have just a hint of vulnerability, makes an impression as a woman who looks forward to a day with “no more misery.” It’s too bad for us that Antoinette is taking off for New York in a few weeks; best of luck to her.

Breakfast in Soul Rep Theatre Company's 8th New Play Festival

In New York-based Yusef Miller’s Breakfast, directed by McMillan-Herod, spouses Harriet (Guinea Bennett-Price) and Glen (Jamal Sterling) start off the day with an argument about Pop-Tarts. He’s an eggs-and-bacon man and argues that they’re not breakfast food. But they have jelly in them, she counters.

If it seems like a pointless quarrel, you’ve never been in a relationship where something more deep-seeded brings out utter foolishness. Insignificances blow up into ridiculous battles.

Turns out, Harriet and Glen are reeling from a tragedy involving their 19-year-old son and both are racked with guilt about what he could have been—and what they could have done differently. It explores the notion of nurture/nature and being the product of one’s environment, with vivid dialogue and affecting performances from both actors. These characters may never know “why,” and neither will we. That’s good theater right there.

The showcase ends with Jonathan Norton’s Wonderful World, directed by Lisa B. Whitfield. Norton has explored his absurd side before in short plays presented at TeCo Theatrical Productions. This one he deems a “ghetto fabulous absurdity.”

Maybe not as absurd as we’ve come to expect from that word when it pertains to the theater, but it definitely has fabulous moments. Sisters Freddie (Michele René) and Bobbie (Monique Ridge Williams) are on their way back from their other sister’s wedding in Grapevine. In the back seat of a rented Lexus is their friend Sprinkle (LaHunter). They take an out-of-the-way road and end up in a rural area where an alien spacecraft lands.

Thus begins the often hilarious squabble over which sister should volunteer to be abducted, with Sprinkle having none of it, even if she’s pretty sure aliens don’t abduct black people. It goes on about five minutes too long, as the fighting stays on a fruitless, circular path. Of course, many arguments do. All three actresses do it justice with wildly funny performances.

In the end, the value of family conquers all.

On Thursday night, Soul Rep’s festival began with performances by spoken word artist Camika Spencer, exciting the audience with two terrific poems. There will be some kind of warm-up act at every performance through the weekend.

Soul Rep’s season will continue with an original musical, A Hostile Holiday, Dec. 11-21 at the South Dallas Cultural Center; and The Shine Plays, three one-acts by Black Arts Movement writer and editor, and Dallas native, Ted Shine, April 9-19 at the Margo Jones Theater.

Hello, Soul Rep, it’s nice to have you back where you belong. 


Soul Rep Theatre Company returns with a stunning signature work inspired by Dallas' Freedman's Memorial.

by Mark Lowry
published Saturday, November 23, 2013

Dallas — Dramatists often conjure the spirits of the dead as a storytelling device. They’re sometimes used as the conscience of a character, or as a cautionary tale, or to comment on a time, place or era that cannot be recaptured. Or, as in Soul Rep Theatre Company’s revival of The Freedmans, in which all of the characters are ghosts, they’re there to celebrate a people who endured tremendous pain, but whose spirits couldn’t be crushed.

Soul Rep was a theater company in Dallas running from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, with a focus on work that reflects the African-American experience. The group gave the area its first glimpses of work by writers like Endesha Ida Mae Holland, Duane Chandler and Pearl Cleage. The Freedmans was created by company members Nia Akimbo, Chris Herod, Anyika McMillan-Herod and Keith Price in their third season, to celebrate the opening of the Freedman’s Memorial in 1998, on a plot of land at Interstate 75 between Lemmon Avenue and Hall Street where the remains of former slaves were discovered in a construction zone.

Now, the group makes a triumphant return by reviving the work as the first show of what will be a comeback season, with this production only running this weekend at the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park. It’ll be back in the spring, too (details to be determined). Artistic director Guinea Bennett-Price and Ed Smith, former artistic director of Jubilee Theatre, co-direct.

Featuring a large cast, many of them original Soul Rep performers (and now, their children), the work uses dance, text and song to give us nine scenes, plus a processional and epilogue, that imagine the stories of people living in Dallas’ Freedman’s Town Community (now the Uptown area) after emancipation.

Narrators Dee Smith and Mike Bowman frame the event, but, even with the title of narrator, don’t do much throughout the story. That works out better, actually, as the songs and text don’t need anyone to speak for them. Another character, called Dice Lady (Rene Jones), a Caribbean women with mystic powers, bridges the scenes.

Some of the vignettes deal with everyday life, others with darker topics like lynching. The scenes with dialogue are beautifully drawn—such as the young lovers Silas (Dane Hereford) and Violet (LaHunter Smith), imagined from one of the statues at the memorial; or the one in which Cato (Keith Price) is made to work in the field again despite that he is a free man.

A particularly moving spiritual has the women singing to the cotton, begging it not to grow, because the workers’ backs ache and their souls are bruised.

The most powerful scene features the character of Old Mammy (Anyika McMillan-Herod), who is close to death and realizes she’ll never get to see the village of her birth, in Ghana, again. Her sadness is palpable. The other women sing and implore her to visit it through her memories. She follows their cue and erupts in dance as she is swept away in the moment. It’s one of the most stunning single images in any production I’ve seen this year.

With simple, period costuming and a bare stage backdropped with video that complements, rather than distracting from, the action, The Freedmans is a compelling and emotional experience. Here’s hoping it’s a sign of things to come from a company that should be welcomed back with open arms. 

Soul Rep returns with arresting revival of ‘The Freedmans’

Lawson Taitte ltaitte@dallasnews.com

Theater Critic

Published: 22 November 2013 

It’s big news that Soul Rep Theatre Company is once again producing. The troupe’s new version of its 1998 The Freedmans proves it’s also very good news.

Soul Rep flourished as one of Dallas’ most acclaimed small theater companies before it ceased operation 10 years ago. The founders had growing families with small children that demanded their attention. Now most of the original ensemble is back at work on this revival of The Freedmans — and those children are now big enough to be onstage with them, turning in performances as remarkable as their parents’.

The Freedmans is an original work developed by the company to commemorate the opening of the Dallas Freedman’s Cemetery Memorial. The burial ground had been rediscovered during the expansion of Central Expressway. It brought a lot of new attention to life in the African-American neighborhood in the years after the abolition of slavery. Nia Akimbo, Chris Herod, Anyika McMillan-Herod and Keith Price wrote short scenes and monologues joined together by appearances of the oracular Dice Lady (Rene Jones), songs and dances choreographed by LaHunter Smith.

Original director (and Soul Rep artistic director) Guinea Bennett-Price is joined this time around by former Jubilee Theatre boss Ed Smith. All their actors turn in arresting performances, but perhaps the most memorable come from two of the play’s writers. Keith Price plays Cato, a former slave enraged by a white cotton farmer’s attempt to force him to work in the field again. His anger erupts into violence, met with far worse violence.

McMillan-Herod dominates the final scene as Old Mammy, whose thoughts keep turning back to the African village where she was born. The old woman’s confusion and desperation are moving. Her final welcoming back into the ways of her ancestors is even more so.

LaHunter Smith and Dane Hereford are charming as a young couple reunited after his desire to escape slavery parted them. Their romantic flirtations bring a welcome moment of lightness to a show built around ideas of death. So does the sweet scene in which a mother (Yolanda Davis) and her new baby join a deceased child in the cemetery.

Alfrelynn Roberts’ powerful singing adds a haunting perspective to many of the show’s transitional moments. The Dice Lady’s rhyming commentaries don’t always make a great deal of sense, to me at least, but Jones’ mocking addresses to the audience add a fateful edge to the proceedings anyway.

This new version of The Freedmans runs for only a single weekend, but Soul Rep promises to bring the show back later in the season. Although Dallas and Fort Worth now have three other companies devoted to the African-American experience, Soul Rep’s daring ambition and sense of style have always been unique. We can hope that this reboot lasts a long, long time.