There must be something in the zeitgeist: Voices: A Legacy to Remember is the fourth L.A. play I’ve seen recently that takes a sort of “people’s history” look at America, with an emphasis on the role Blacks played on this Continent. However, unlike the Actors’ Gang’s Break the Whip and the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum’s Carry It On!, but like the Stella Adler Theatre’s The Good Negro,writer/ director/producer Maurice Kitchen’s Voices exclusively chronicles the trials, tribulations, travails and triumphs of African Americans. And what a sizzling saga it is.
The theatrical device Voices uses to explore the past is that of a time traveling teenager, Kai Niambi aka Baby Girl (the adorable Monica McSwain), a bright, wannabe writer who expresses a lack of interest in and perhaps even disrespect for those Blacks who came before her. In fact, Kai is in a sort of state of denial about slavery, Jim Crow, etc., and as a young person of color in the Age of Obama doesn’t want to dwell on these unhappy memories. This reminded me of the Jewish children I grew up with in the 1960s who told Yiddish speakers to “speak American,” and who didn’t want to see the Nazi numerical tattoos – those spooky, hair-raising reminders of the concentration camps -- on the arms of the neighborhood’s older European Jews.
In a similar way, Kai wants to have historical amnesia and to just be another Yankee Doodle Dandy. The play poses this dilemma as a generation gap, with yesterday’s “Negroes” versus today’s “Blacks” or “African Americans.” Kai’s grandfather (David McKnight) explains that she’s descended from tribal storytellers, and mystically arranges for Kai to witness her forebears, so that the 16-year-old experiences much of the tapestry of her ancestors’ history in what is now America. Kai sees firsthand the horrors of slavery, as well as the resistance to it by Harriet Tubman, who is superbly and rather drolly portrayed by Patti Henley. This fearless, gallant stalwart of the Underground Railroad, who led many slaves up the freedom road to the North, has been depicted by the great Ruby Dee in a 1963 episode of The Great Adventure TV series, by Cicely Tyson in a 1978 made-for-TV-movie, in a 1996 animated work and more. It’s hard to find any historical figure as exciting as Tubman, but she has not been the lead character in any feature films – chalk it up to America’s racial politics and box office demographics. Just putting ethnic issues aside for a moment, a Tubman biopic would be an action packed, thrilling feature, and Henley would make a compelling, humorous lead.
Writing a play about the past of course involves selectivity, and Kitchen chooses not to depict those Black Spartacuses, Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner, or the Blacks who fought at Abolitionist John Brown’s side to free the slaves. Kai does encounter the Buffalo Soldiers in a scene full of humor and music with Kitchen portraying a cavalry officer. Kitchen, whom I met at a musical theatre conference last summer, is himself part of a street corner style singing group, and this sequence contains a whimsical do-wop song performed by Masta Edwards (who later has fun impersonating Louie “Satchmo” Armstrong). This vignette refers to an unspecified “war,” which couldn’t be the Civil War because the Buffalo Soldiers were formed afterwards, in 1866. While it’s true that Blacks played a role in conquering the West, I doubt that this is something Native Americans, the victims of genocide, think should be celebrated in a play about Black pride. Kitchen -- an NAACP theatre award winner as Best Musical Director for Dark Legends in Blood -- would probably have served his play better if he had presented those valiant ex-slaves of the fighting 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry who fought the Confederacy instead of American Indians, as the 1989 movie Glory did – now that’s something to be truly proud of.
Kai continues her time traveling journey and encounters the scientist George Washington Carver and poet Langston Hughes, both adroitly depicted by Robert DoQui. During the Harlem renaissance sequence Kai sees the Cotton Club phenomenon, Cab Calloway (the aptly nicknamed Larny “Dapper” Johnson III) and Ella Fitzgerald (Lina Wade), as the stage explodes with rhythm, sexy, leggy dancers and great hoofing choreographed by Karen McDonald and Nina Flagg. However, in another “Frankie and Johnny” vignette about the famous quarreling couple, Kai – and the plot – seems to take a detour, and the play loses focus. Indeed, Kai sometimes seems lost in this theatrical extravaganza. And a whimsical character named Aunt Izzy (Windy Barnes Farrell) seems to be her time travel guide, but it’s never clear exactly who Izzy is supposed to be. The script could be tighter.
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Voices regains its footing with the depiction of Black activists Paul Robeson (Paul Michael Smith as the pro-Communist actor/singer) and Gerald C. Rivers as Dr. Martin Luther King (whom Rivers also movingly portrayed in Carry It On! and is likewise in fine form here). Kitchen returns onstage to portray Malcolm X in one of the sweeping spectacle’s best sequences. But the ensuing “When the Revolution Comes” scene is only briefly alluded to and glossed over; militants Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, et al, are not portrayed per se. It would have been nice to see some performers sporting Afros, instead of hair-dos and styles designed to tame and transmogrify African hair in order to accommodate bearers to the dominant majority culture’s aesthetics and sensibility regarding perceived beauty. Alas, there is no Angela Davis or Kathleen Cleaver characters portrayed sporting Naturals, personifying the “Black is beautiful” and “I’m Black and I’m proud” era.
In any case, Kai returns to the present duly impressed by her people’s struggles, with a profound new respect for yesterday’s “Negroes” and what they went through – they weren’t all just Uncle Toms, Uncle Remuses or Aunt Jemimas. The onetime young whippersnapper, now a little older and much wiser, has learned her history lesson and now respects her elders – and all they went though so today’s generation could get to where it is in the 21st century. Kai decides to devote herself to telling her ancestors’ stories and to writing about Black history.
Why have four plays been presented in L.A. around the same time highlighting the historical injustices Blacks suffered and crusaded against? I suspect it’s because the same type of open antipathy once expressed against Blacks – which can no longer be publicly stated in polite company (except by paid off Black Benedict Arnolds like Armstrong Williams and other race traitors) – is now openly espoused against the scorned groups du jour: Gays, Muslims, immigrants. New “others” to despise, but the same old bigotry, cruelty and intolerance, as these plays serve to remind us. And of course, with poverty at record levels in this country, even with a Black prez today’s African Americans themselves still have a long way to go on that freedom road Harriet Tubman and others trailblazed.
Although it is at times pedantic Voices: A Legacy to Remember does have a memorable story combined with snazzy costumes, great foot stomping choreography and finger snapping music, from traditional Negro Spirituals to Gospel to Jazz, etc. I saw this NAACP-Image Award nominated production recently at the 1,270 seat Wilshire Ebell Theatre, and a huge crowd of mostly Black ticket buyers enjoyed the musical and its message, as did I, and I imagine you will too when it returns to a different venue. Have fun and get edified while dining on some theatrical soul food at Maurice Kitchen’s historical lollapalooza.
Voices: A Legacy to Remember is being performed at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, 4718 West Washington Boulevard, Los Angeles, on Oct. 8 and 9 at 8:00 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 10 at 3:00 p.m. For more info: Call: (323)964-9766; www.voiceslegacy.com/ .
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian, critic, author, freelance writer and wag who wrote the Oct. 26, 2001 Tucson Weekly cover story“Tinseltown’s Tombstone, A Look at the Real and Reel Wyatt Earp.”