Theater Review | ‘A Song for Coretta’
A fitting match for the holiday celebrating a great man, A Song for Coretta performed by the Black Theatre Troupe at Playhouse on the Park is, at times, an unequivocal portrait of hardships still faced today.
The year is 2006. The setting, the front of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, is nothing more than a brick bench and planter. A dimly-lit lamp post sits below the dimly-lit sign that bears the church’s name. It is here the play takes place from start to finish, beginning with a transient woman begging for change from an older woman sitting on the bench. The tone is set when, after multiple failed attempts to earn a donation, she begins singing church hymns, beautifully I might add. This garners her “change” as she comically puts it, and she departs for the rest of the show in an uncredited performance.
Leah Marché, who plays a journalist in the making by the name of Zora Evans, has a noticeably small role in the production. This slight is somewhat forgiven, however, as she behaves on stage as the anchor character, allowing the rest of the cast to revolve around her as they tell their accounts. These accounts, making up the majority of the play, are of why they are waiting in line to pay tribute to Coretta King at the church where, in life, she spent every January 15 commemorating her late husband’s birthday. It is here where her body was placed before burial in 2006.
There is a caution to be heeded when presenting a play in honor of a beloved historical figure, especially of a woman who has directly affected so many people still alive today. That beloved figure, Coretta Scott King, should require no introduction, yet is unknown by the population who hasn’t sought out the knowledge on their own. Civil Rights Movement figurehead Martin Luther King Jr., who we celebrate every third Monday of January, is only one half to the equation that was driving force of the enfranchisement of African Americans during the 1960′s. Coretta King, however, carried the movement when her husband was assassinated. She went on to live a long life promoting the civil liberties around the world before succumbing to ovarian cancer in 2006. That is the gravity this play strives for.
There is a detachment from reality the moment the homeless woman leaves the stage, and it is hard to take this cast seriously. Helen Richard, the aforementioned older woman, is waiting to pay her respects to the late Coretta King. Charlotte Strayhorne, who plays Helen, is the performer who epitomizes this detachment. Much like a cold reading of lines, Strayhorne recites her part without showing the faintest of emotions in her voice or facial expressions. Every actor in this performance is guilty of this at some point during the play, but for Strayhorne, this lackluster performance is pivotal. There is a tremendous opportunity in her role as the one woman on stage who lived to see Coretta King during the Civil Rights Movement, yet as she tells her tale, there is a distinct indifference in her acting.
If Strayhorne is the cold porridge in this Goldilocks performance, Jasmine Richardson, who plays Keisha Cameron, is the porridge that is too hot. As a generation unfortunately exposed to the likes of Tyler Perry in the realms of Black entertainment, Richardson’s rendition of a young high school student is overplayed and shallow in its delivery. Ignorant of social issues that plagued generations before her, yet dealing with her own teenage pregnancy concurrently, Keisha is made out to be everything that is wrong with the youth today. Richardson seemed to fully endorse an overplayed rebellious teenager available at any given time on the Disney channel, all the while smacking her tongue before every line, which was, for lack of a better word, annoying. That being said, Richardson did earn the most laughs throughout the play, and I admit I look forward to her future performances in hopefully matured and deeper roles.
The sincerity we are craving is largely the success of the remaining two performers who are exactly the temperature of porridge we desire throughout the play. Mona Lisa Martin, a painter from New Orleans, is played by Chanel Bragg and is the first performer to believe what she is saying on stage. Although Bragg, too, is at times guilty of this play’s persistent detachment, she quickly redeems herself by drinking bourbon from a metal flask in overplayed pity. This performance confirms her as a whimsical and artistic woman with depths formerly unseen in the play. Portraying a victim of Hurricane Katrina, Bragg is overwhelmingly the best performer throughout the entirety of the show. We feel her guarded looks at the beginning, and we are swept away with her heartfelt story of the flooding and debauchery in New Orleans at the time of the hurricane.
Last but certainly not least, Gwen Johnson is a soldier on leave trying to find answers to horrific events she witnessed while deployed. Played by Alexis Green, Gwen is the character we cannot look away from. She answers every challenge we could ever ask of an actor playing a gravitational role surrounding a delicate topic. Even better are the moments when her talents intertwine with Bragg’s in the play’s finale. The result is award-worthy and breathtaking.
Please, readers, do not be swayed either way on the earlier dialogue in this performance, as Green and Bragg are the scene-stealing duo that will show you all’s well that ends well. A Song for Coretta by Black Theatre Troupe gives answers to a generation still facing adversity, and when we believe what they are saying, that message rings true.
A Song for Coretta runs January 13-22 at Playhouse on the Park, 1850 N. Central Ave., (602) 254-2151. Single tickets are $33.50.