BWW Interview: Director/Choreographer Patdro Harris & Music Director Chika Kaba Ma'atunde Talk SISTAS at The Ensemble Theatre

BWW Interview: Director/Choreographer Patdro Harris & Music Director Chika Kaba Ma'atunde Talk SISTAS at The Ensemble Theatre

What do nostalgia, memory, and music all have in common? Not only do they all hold emotional influence over an individual, but they all also happen to be themes present in The Ensemble Theatre's upcoming Regional Premiere, SISTAS: The Musical, by Dorothy Marcic. Directed and choreographed by Patrdo Harris with Musical Direction by Chika Kaba Ma'atunde, SISTAS is a musical journey through emotion and history as five friends heal from a loss. Through the incorporation of popular songs, "this play parallels the story of African-American women and their emerging sense of empowerment".

I spoke with Director Patrdo Harris and Musical Director Chika Kaba Ma'atunde to learn a bit more about what gives this new musical its meaningful influence.


First could you tell me a bit about SISTAS and its meaning to you? What is the show about in your eyes?

Patdro Harris: SISTAS is about family and using music as therapy. We all use music as therapy when we get in the car to go to work and put on our favorite station or favorite song. The characters actually use music as therapy during this play. The sisters in this family meet in the attic after their grandma--the matriarch of this family--passes away. She always used music to show them their insides and out, and now it's time for them to use their gifts of music to see how they can remember her in a special way.

Could you explain what your job is as a musical director working on a non-traditional musical like SISTAS?

Chika Kaba Ma'atunde: For one, I make sure everybody in the cast knows the music. I'm responsible for both the cast and the band. If there are any small changes that the director might want, I will make those changes and traditionally do additional arrangements, since in this case all the music is popular music.

I imagine directing a regional premiere is much different than a production that has been done many times. Could you talk to me about the approach you take with a new piece of theatre like SISTAS?

Chika Kaba Ma'atunde: I have to make sure that the transitions are smooth, and also make sure that the music supports the emotion of the story. That can be hard, since SISTAS is not a traditional musical, it is more a play with music. My job is to make sure that this music can support the work of the story.

Patdro Harris: Well, for me, I read it and then write down the craziest thing about it--whatever pops into my head, that's what I go with. That's where my creativity kind of takes hold. I know that the artists and the music informs me in a way, and while the words tell us what to say, the relationships tell us how to say it. I grew up listening to a lot of this music with my mom as a young person, so this music I've been hearing my entire life. I research it in my own heart--How could these stories infuse into these people's lives? I try to make it so there's a theme throughout the script. The words from the songs are so powerful, but since it's a musical the monologues and dialogues we have need to push the songs forward.

Since SISTAS has a wide range of musical genres and styles throughout the show, how do you navigate all of these varying musical styles when putting together a cohesive show?

Chika Kaba Ma'atunde: You have to really make sure that everything fits, because there are a lot of musical styles. Then, the question you have to ask is: do you remain with the musical style that is there, or do you upgrade it some? Some of the styles I've kept exactly the way they are, and some I've upgraded a little--which again, is based on the story itself. You try to do that so that even though there are different genres, there is a through line with all the music itself.

Would you say it's easier to do the musical direction for a show when the musical framework is already present?

Chika Kaba Ma'atunde: I think a musical is a bit more difficult, because you have to pay attention to the fact that the music is part of the story. These songs are popular, so you want to be as true as you possibly can to those songs because your audience is going to know them.

Have there been any challenges in directing or choreographing this musical?

Patdro Harris: Getting everybody on the same page. One day we had a talk about racism, one of the sister-in-law's in the show is Caucasian, and she comes in and her point of view about racism is different than the others'. We had to get on the same page with her views. So, we sat around and we told stories about racism and everybody shared from both sides of the fence, just to let the actors realize the value of doing this play. This is not just something we do to entertain, but also to inform.

It sounds like this show definitely fits into the intentional mission of The Ensemble Theatre.

Patdro Harris: Absolutely. It is done in such a wonderful way, because the music is competing with people's memories and histories. I love the way it is done because it makes it challenging to match what the audience knows [about the music] and then take them some other place that will be a bigger challenge. Everybody knows these songs, how they go, what the harmonies are, what the words are, so you have to match their memories and then challenge them to take it to the next level.

Lastly, what should the audience members look forward to taking away from this production?

Chika Kaba Ma'atunde: The stories and how the music helps to bring about the emotions of the stories. There are a lot of stories dealing with families and racism, and the songs allow you to think differently when they are connected to a story. The popular music helps you see things in a new light.

Patdro Harris: Good times. Good memories. Definitely memories of home, home being whatever your heart is, not necessarily a location. Memories of your heart that make you go "Ahh. I remember that...". SISTAS also makes us examine how we feel as a culture about people of color, Latinos, Caucasians, and different points of view of the world. Ultimately, the audience will have a wonderful time laughing and cheering for this family to come together after losing one of their loved ones.

SISTAS begins previews at The Ensemble Theatre on June 23rd, 24th, and 27th. Opening night is June 28th, and SISTAS will have performances run through July 29th. Performances after opening night are Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays with ticket prices starting at $44. Please visit ensemblehouston.com or call 713.520.0055 for more information.

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