By Daniel Skora
It’s a cozy little attic with dusty Christmas decorations, hat boxes stuffed with yesterday’s fashions, and, most importantly, stacks of old 45’s and 78’s scattered about. Five women enter one by one through a trap door in the ceiling of the room below. Four are African-American, one is white, but by race, by blood, by marriage, they are all sistas. The death of their mother/grandma has brought them together to sort through her belongings and to decide on a song for her farewell service that will best exemplify her life. The bonding and familial conversations that take place at that gathering, and the songs the women sing as they remember the matriarch of their family, are what “Sistas the Musical”, currently appearing at Meadow Brook Theatre, is all about.
Author, management guru, and playwright Dorothy Marcic (Doctor Marcic, if you please), has assembled some of the most noteworthy songs going back to the beginning of the twentieth century that speak to the black feminine experience in America and wrapped them around a storyline dealing with their cultural, social, and personal history. Her characters, though real women in their own right, represent certain archetypes.
There’s self-assured Simone (Lucy Shropshire), single mother to her daughter Tamika (Felicia Renae) who, like all teenagers, is plugged into headphones, texting, and boyfriends. Gloria (Monica J. Palmer) is the sanctimonious voice of goodness and reason, while Roberta (Jennifer Fouché, an original Off-Broadway cast member) is the contemptuous one who carries with her a pent-up bitterness towards everything that was wrong about the Black experience in America. Heather (Stacy White) is the white woman who has married into the family.
The women have never gathered under such intimate and emotional circumstances, so it’s not unusual for them speak more openly then they ever have. We get to know them personally, and as they go through the belongings of their mother, who lived a long and exemplary life, we are exposed to the events and the music that have been a part of their life and history.
The show touches on racism, sexism, the civil rights movement, and family structure. At first, the historical references seem like an imposition on this visit with some incredibly charming ladies. But as the play progresses, you realize that the history of their people is a part of their very fiber, and the women and their history cannot be separated.
And the music is absolutely wonderful, songs that stir the soul and have become not only a testament to the talent of black women artists, but have come to be a part of the American songbook. The show begins with a spirited rendition of “Oh, Happy Day” and ends with an equally spirited “We Are Family. Songs made famous by Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross (with and without the Supremes), Barbara Lewis, Dionne Warwick, and Beyoncé are part of this musical review. Songs like “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, “Stormy Weather”, “Society’s Child”, “Respect”, “Stop in the name of Love”, and “I Will Survive” not only bring down the house, but provide historical context to the lives of their mother and of all black women.
Director Travis W. Walter has put together an A+ perfect production of a rousingly entertaining show. The five women have great voices, soul in their hearts, and really know how to lay down a song. They’ve got a handsome set to work in: a framework of beams (set design by Jen Price Fick) that outline an attic space filled with a lifetime’s worth of treasures. Costumes, by Mary Elizabeth Winther, are splendid, especially the flaming red gowns for the Supremes number. Choreography is by Tyrick Wiltez Jones, who was such a hit in “Legends” a few shows back at Meadow Brook. Music director is Zachary Ryan, lighting is by Matthew J. Fick and sound comes courtesy of Mike Duncan.
“Sistas the Musical” is a Michigan premier. The show runs through May 15th. Tickets are available by calling the Meadow Brook box office at 1.734.248.377.3300 or going online to www.ticketmaster.com. Meadow Brook Theatre is located on the campus of Oakland University in the city of Rochester.