Constellations and Crossroads
I do love Baltimore, but be honest, there are two different Baltimores. There is a poor Baltimore and an affluent Baltimore. There are areas where one race is in vast majority, where on the other side of the city, the opposite occurs. So this was an amazing experience to sit between patrons in Doc Martens with tattoos and older ladies with fixators to match their suits.
The Introductory page on the program states it best, “[these two shows] represent a collective desire to reach out of each of our comfort zones and a small step towards desegregating the arts in our city, where entrenched systems often keep white and black patrons and artists in separate lanes. We hope these shows help defeat ingrained stereotypes and clichés that we all carry around with us.” Indeed, Arena Players and BROS. Indeed. And damn is this a show to see- with powerful storytelling, amazing songs, and some shining talent.
The first show is Constellations, or Determination of Azimuth. It is a musical number about the space race of the 1950s featuring narration by Katherine Johnson played by Valerie Lewis. She narrates a flashback sequence of her first day on the job at NASA. She recounts her mathematical background and how she forced her way into meetings reserved for the engineers to see what the end result was of her calculations. The ending of course, is that NASA successfully launches a man into orbit and returns him safely to the earth. The show is only thirty minutes long and is followed by a twenty-minute intermission for stage reset and to encourage people to mingle, purchase merchandise, and get beverages at the window.
The second show is Crossroads, The Battle at Blue Apple Crossing. Papa Legba played by James Watson arrives at the base of a large old tree that has been used for lynchings. He intends to chop the tree down and rid his people of the negative reminder of their past. He is met by the Devil played by Charence Higgins, and Jesus played by Valerie Lewis. After an intense rock opera number, the three decide the fate of the tree and mankind in its wake.
Constellations was a feel good piece anchored by the confident speech and song of Valerie Lewis as present day Katherine Johnson. Her dress with stars and comets by the way was super adorable—lovely work Jacob Dillow. The other girls in the mathematics department are Charity Jones (Florence), Alo Seda (Dorothy), Taylor Washington (Ama), and Caelyn Sommerville as the young Katherine Johnson. The girls all were decked in primary colors except for Caelyn whose black dress gave a plain nod to the later constellation dress I mentionedJ Well done on the cohesion of the costumes! They all dance, sing, and solve complicated math problems with oversized props like pencils and compasses. The unity and clarity of their voices contrasts to the engineers- Michael Stevenson (Guido), Robert Harris (Fido), and Chris Ashworth (Charlie). These three in their matching white shirts and skinny ties also sing their mathematical finding but with a little more aggression and less melody than the women. On the projection screen, in typical BROS style, there is a “feed” from the space shuttle including two puppet astronauts checking in from their mission. All in all, a feel good story with a positive and uplifting message. I am not a top-notch mathematician, but the songs were a little chunky and hard to follow. I felt for all the actors who had to memorize these terms and sing a non-rhyming song. Seriously, well done- I don’t think I could have attempted that with any grace whatsoever.
Crossroads was my favorite of the night though. James Watson (Papa Legba) enters the stage alone and spends some time spinning a yarn with the audience to provide exposition to the play. His singing was soulful and exceptionally clear. The audience reacted enthusiastically several times at his prophetic lyrics and mournful tone. The band for this show, really got to show their stuff- Alex Fine, Nick Jewett, Julius Verzosa, Sam Balcom, and Cynthia Schatoff even got to do some southern picking prior to the start of the show. The intermission music got a standing ovation- ya’ll can play some guitar! Enter Charence Higgins (Devil) in her red sparkly lipstick and red pumps with a feathered hairpiece and matching feathered cape (again- mad props to Jacob Dillow- can we hang out?). Charence owned the stage, and even when there was a wardrobe malfunction and her shoe went flying into the audience, she just kicked off the other one too and kept in step. Charence and James’ dance numbers were perfectly timed and wonderfully reciprocal. On Dancing with Stars, you two would have won. Just as they begin to strike a bargain though, enter Valerie Lewis as Jesus. The entrance alone was worth an award. Her goatee, white suit, thorn crown, and red dress shirt are a funky rock-n-roll take on the classic image. Valerie’s singing really got to shine here- her high notes got noticeable applause and her bigger than thou attitude transported this performance to new heights. The set of the tree, axe (Anna Platis), and lights (Chris Allen) were also used effectively to simulate thunderstorms, power, and contemplation as Papa Legba decides what to do.
Should I stay or should I go? You should NOT MISS THIS MASH-UP! Not only is it working to effectively unite very different theaters in Baltimore, it is one hell of a show! The rock, the blues, the music, the math, the cast, the lights, everything about this night was amazing, inspiring, and soul-stirring. The production teams, creative teams, and so many more are to be commended for seeing this idea through to its full potential. As they program states, “we stand now at the crossroads with our eyes set on the shining constellations of the future.” And indeed, this is the future of Baltimore- collaboration. GO. SEE. THIS. SHOW.
Playing at Arena Players through 2/18. 80-minute running time with a 20-minute intermission.