I walked into Motor House after a fun afternoon with my good gal pal. We both agreed that seeing an ArtsCentric show would be the perfect ending to the day. For those not in the know, ArtsCentric is a theater company that focuses on plays and musicals with a “color-conscious” lens. Not color-blind, color-conscious. That’s the difference between “I don’t see color when I cast a role” and “I see your race and cast you in a role that is meaningful to the play.” It’s this up front awareness of skin tone and not shying away from it that I appreciate as a Person of color theater lady about town. That being said I was not surprised to hear that they would be doing the musical Aida. I knew very little about the musical beforehand (see my previous reviews that state I’m not a big musical fan), but I did know it was based on an opera and took place in Egypt. I think some dudes named Elton John and Tim Rice wrote it. Whatever. So why is it such a big deal that the ArtsCentric production is an all African-American cast? Shouldn’t it be if it’s set in Africa? Question mark? A quick Google image search of past productions answered my question. Egyptians have been whitewashed in TV and movies for years. I should have known better.
Aida chronicles the love triangle between head Egyptian military officer Ramades (Jo’Nathan Michael), his betrothed princess Amneris (Kanysha Williams), and the titular character Aida (Awa Sal Secka), a Nubian princess stolen from her country by Ramades alongside several other female Nubians. Ramades comes back from an expedition from Nubia and is more excited about his captive Aida, who he doesn’t know is a princess, than Amneris that he’s been engaged to for nine years! Oh shit, it’s ‘bout to be on! Brother, you haven’t put a ring on it yet? What are you waiting on? But one look from the beautiful, strong-willed, and defiant Aida and Ramades is a puddle of hot chocolate. Ramades father Zoser (Rafealito Ross) wants him to hurry the fuck up and marry Amneris, because fathers always live vicariously through their sons, and develops a plot to injury the Pharaoh (Darien Rothchild) so that Amneris and Ramades are in power. Fellow slave and Ramades’ right hand man Mereb (Ricardo Blagrove) recognizes Princess Aida and the other slaves wait for the day they can return to Nubia. The rest of the main characters include Amonasro (Curis McNeil) Aida’s father the Nubian King and Nehebka (Kristal Anderson) a fellow Nubia slave. A host of princess handmaidens, Nubian slaves, Egyptian soldiers and ministers round out the ensemble cast.
The casting in this show was impeccable. What magical place are you pulling artists from ArtsCentric? Awa Sal Secka as Aida was stunning. Secka’s voice was powerful, rich, yet sincere. It was like a hot knife in butter. Secka’s performance crackled with emotion and you could see it in her eyes and hear it in her voice. Ramades (played intensely by Jo’Nathan Michael) was both powerful yet conflicted. Michael’s voice was smooth and his chemistry with Secka was palpable. Amneris (Kanysha Williams) was the sassy, spoiled, Daddy’s girl, but with a headdress and kick ass clothing (I’ll get to the costumes in a minute). Williams’ voice had a delicate strength to it which was best showcased in the number “I Know the Truth.” I felt the sadness and her voice matched her emotion in the moment. It was a joy to watch her character change from the spoiled princess to the grown future queen. Ricardo Blagrove (Mereb) was charming and witty as most right hand servant archetypes tend to be. Blagrove portrayed him as humble, real and not cartoonish. Finally, don’t sit on the ensemble. They pulled the lion’s share of the singing, dancing, and costume changes in this production. Their harmonies were on point and weaved through the score nicely thanks to musical director Cedric D. Lyles. Their dancing was also spectacular in such a small space. I don’t know how choreographer Shalyce N. Hemby did it. The choreography was sharp, intense and a lovely marriage of contemporary style and African movements.
The singing and dancing were the showpieces of an honest, intense and engaging book and lyrics. I felt what they were singing about be it love, loss, or uncertainty about the future. The costumes were meticulously executed and were fierce/on fire/on fleek insert whatever other colloquial term for really good. They were colorful, well cut to fit different body types (yaass for different body types represented on stage), and strikingly ethnically authentic. My favorite costumes were the ones worn by Amneris. They were befitting of an Egyptian princess who sang in one song “Dress has always been my strongest suit” and “I am what I wear”. Damn straight! Set designer Ryan Haase evoked “Egyptian” without beating you over the head with it. African artifacts hung on the wall and the floor/wall colors of blue and gold echoed into the costuming. The sandpit on the floor was an interesting choice, but it may have been more trouble than it was worth. Lighting was a character on its own thanks to lighting designer Lynn Joslin. The lighting punctuated the emotion, used the right color palette for actors of color, featured dope textured gobos and supported the action beautifully. I’m a secret lighting nerd if you haven’t figure it out yet. Bottom line, overall direction by Kevin S. McAllister was well thought out and very successful. All of the elements came together in just the right way to make the production soar.
As a Black female artist, I was overwhelmed with joy from seeing so many talented beautiful black bodies in motion. Just wow. Aida is a Black story. Thank you ArtsCentric for showcasing that. But it’s a story we all can relate to. It not only explored forbidden love, but also the difference between what others expect of you and what you expect of yourself. That moment when you step away from your parents’ shadow, weigh the obligations you’ve had your whole life and make your own decisions. Do you follow your heart or lead your people?
Should I stay or should I go? Every element of this show was otherworldly. I really felt like I was in a theater on Broadway and not an art space on North Avenue. From the lighting, to the costumes, the choreography and especially the performances, Aida is a must-see. It warmed even my cold anti-musical theater heart. A well told story of star-crossed lovers by an all African-American cast. Speaking of star-crossed lovers, ArtsCentric can you do a color-conscious Romeo & Juliet because I am about that life and will be the first in line for auditions. Run to see this gem of a production before it ends. Who doesn’t love a juicy love triangle set in a far off land? #blackactormagic
Now through August 26th at Motor House. Running Time is about 2 hours and 30 minutes with a 15 minute intermission.