Spring Awakenings 

Shakespeare beatboxes, The Old Settler moans, Speech & Debate sings.

The cast of The Old Settler

The cast of The Old Settler

Last week, I caught a sneak preview of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Michael Ching's new a cappella opera. Ching, who recently stepped down as Opera Memphis' artistic director, has taken some risks by eliminating all traditional musical instruments and scoring his show entirely for the human voice using techniques he's picked up from DeltaCappella, Memphis' outstanding a cappella show choir. Beatboxing replaced traditional percussion, while operatic voices soared, and Shakespeare's words rang throughout the Clark Opera Memphis Center's rehearsal hall. A Midsummer Night's Dream, a collaboration between Opera Memphis, Playhouse on the Square, and DeltaCappella, celebrates its world premiere on January 21st at Playhouse. If the rest of the show is as light and tasty as the samples, it will definitely find a life after Memphis. Mark your calendars now.

January 21st-February 13th

 

The Old Settler, now onstage at the Hattiloo Theatre, takes audiences back to the radio days of 1943. Spring is in the air and so is the jazz. Black culture is thriving in Harlem, although the civil rights movement is still a long way off and race relations are poor, even in the comparatively progressive North. Bess and Quilly are middle-aged sisters who migrated from North Carolina looking for a better life. Bess, the older, never-married sister, has caused a row by renting the spare room to a single man, Husband Witherspoon, a naive, young former sawmill worker from South Carolina.

Husband, gently played by Bertram Williams Jr., has come to Harlem following the death of his mother, looking for Lou Bessie, an old girlfriend, who left him in South Carolina and has since gotten caught up in the seedier side of New York nightlife. Lou Bessie mocks Husband for being a homespun mama's boy and takes advantage of his generosity. Bess, who is old enough to be Husband's mother, comforts the young man, and over time his feelings of gratitude mutate into stronger stuff.

John Henry Redwood's bittersweet romance is an old-fashioned kitchen-sink drama. The term "Old Settler" refers to a middle-aged woman with no prospects of marriage. It's what Lou Bessie calls Bess as the two women begin to compete for Husband's attention, and, unsurprisingly, it doesn't go over well at all.

Director Lazora Jones, who performed the role of Bess in the now-defunct Memphis Black Repertory Company's regional premiere of The Old Settler in the 1990s, has removed some of the overt sexual tension that drove the earlier production. Jones' vision for the show is more innocent and less immediately thrilling but still very satisfying. Niambi Webster charms as the fussy, needy Quilly, forever a little sister. Precious Morris delivers the show's most fearless performance. She works the stage with the body of a full-grown woman and the bashful sexuality of a schoolgirl.

Through January 23rd

 

"Trust me, I'm a Puritan." So sings Mary Warren — the girl accused of dancing naked in the woods with Tituba the witch in Arthur Miller's The Crucible — when a young, deluded, and unquestionably gay Abe Lincoln says he thinks he can become president without hiding his same-sex proclivities. "I'm smart, I'm moral, I could win," Honest Abe says, setting up the ambition-crushing rhyme. The song in question is the centerpiece of Speech & Debate, a smart, sexually charged coming-of-age dramedy at TheatreWorks. Curious friendships develop in a quirky, hopeful story about kids trying to figure out the things their parents are afraid to talk about.

Through January 30th

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