Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


From the first glimpse of A Song For Coretta, it's clear the production is willing to take risks. Nearly all the Detroit Repertory Theatre stage is taken up by an immense church facade (designed by Harry Wetzel), leaving the characters on the sidewalk outside with hardly more space in which to maneuver than that of an actual sidewalk. Every character on stage is relegated to the foreground, a manufactured challenge handled with commendable ease by director Barbara Busby.

Pearl Cleage's script throws five strangers together in line for the public viewing of the late Coretta Scott King. In the middle of the night, bothered by intermittent rain, these characters linger at the very end of the line, compelled only at the last moment to take part in history. Their reasons for coming are as varied as their lives and attitudes, and in the course of two acts we learn much about each character's convictions as well as the experiences that shaped them. It's not clear how much the women influence each others' perspectives, but their shared reverence of Mrs. King gives them — and the audience — plenty to consider.

The emotional bedrock here rests in Charity Clark as Helen Richards, the eldest of the women, who vividly recalls the Montgomery bus boycott with pride and awe. Helen is capable of both kindly benevolence and vicious judgment, and Clark portrays these extremes (and everything in between) as existing together in a single complex woman, a sympathetic character throughout. Equally fascinating is Casaundra Freeman as Keisha Cameron, an irreverent teen who balances her scathing hilarity with touching depth. Although considerable venom between Helen and Keisha drives most of the action, the play's end breaks the thread to focus on two other characters, and in so doing departs from the realism of the earlier dialogue into something more raw and experimental. Again, Busby makes careful decisions that ease the audience into the unexpected development, actors Angela G. King and Janee Ann Smith deliver gripping performances, and I couldn't imagine these stories being told any other way.

This generally strong production did contain a few small missteps. Of the five characters, aspiring journalist Zora Evans has apparently evaded the hardships the others know firsthand; instead, Lydia Willis plays her as naive and endlessly upbeat, primarily a foil for exposition. Lighting design by Thomas Schaeder effectively mimicked a midnight street scene, but could not account for the actors' occasional use of umbrellas shadowing their faces. Judy Dery's costume design puts a destitute artist, who defends being underdressed, in semi-eclectic but tasteful — and quite new — clothing. However, these anomalies are relatively minor hiccups that hardly detract from the overall positive experience.

A Song For Coretta does not trumpet a message, nor does it thrust forward any one character or her point of view as being correct. A viewer can choose to ruminate on a single new perspective, or consider questions about how one honors history; I suspect most will leave with a sense of the unifying force that allows these women to better understand each other. Mrs. King left a lasting impression on each of these characters, but this production primarily reminds us what an impression the stories of ordinary people can have on us.


Post a Comment