BWW Reviews: First Stage Fights for Freedom in A MIDNIGHT CRY

BWW Reviews: First Stage Fights for Freedom in A MIDNIGHT CRY
Photo Credit: Paul Ruffolo

What does contemporary society, especially the young people remember about slavery---pre or post Civil War? Last weekend, James DeVita's poignant play A Midnight Cry returned to First Stage at the Todd Wehr Theater after premiering in 2003. A young Missouri slave, Lida June Anderson, must escape through the Underground Railroad while leaving her family behind, although she discovers countless people willing to help her along the way to freedom.

Resident acting member of American Players Theatre and Resident Playwright James DeVita wrote a compelling script more than ten years ago that proves new works continually enrich Theater for Young Audiences. Under the accomplished direction of Jeff Frank, the latest revision of the play reworked by Music Director Sheri Williams Pannell added a cadre of authentic African American spirituals to elevate the production to greater heights with this musical sense of history. While the slaves sing, "there's a heaven up there somewhere," Percussion Director Jahmés Tony Finlayson composed background music and rhythms to underscore Lida's treacherous journey.

The lovely Malkia Stampley imbues LIda Anderson with courage and a realistic fear of her circumstances to carry the performance for this incredibly memorable evening. An adult actor instead of a young performer from the Hope or Freedom casts, Stampley's warm, lilting voice resonates with the longing of the soul, for her own freedom and to be treated as a human being that desires to read, write and work. In her heart and mind, Lida continually remembers hearing that midnight cry of a baby being stripped from a mother's arms to be sold as a slave for fifteen dollars a pound.

An outstanding supporting cast includes Michael A.Torrey as Lida's father while Marvette Knight as her mother gives body to these heart-wrenching roles where children are torn asunder from their parents. Todd Denning, Matt Daniels and Mark Corkins switch roles with assurance from slave holders/workers on a Missouri plantation to Northern abolitionists in support of the Underground Railroad, assisting the freedom seekers to walk this difficult road. The Hope Cast performed over opening weekend with Chantae Miller as Lida's sister and included an ensemble that plays the musical score.

After the production, an extensive talkback presented Kimberly Simmons, founder of the Detroit River Project and the great, great, great granddaughter of Caroline Quarlls-Watkins, one of the first slaves that traveled through Wisconsin via the Underground Railroad and inspired DeVita's story. Simmons encouraged the audience to view these profound stories as one of the collaborative moments in history, as opposed to viewing them as merely the terrors of the slave trade incorporated into that horrific system. "This can also be seen as a shining moment in history," Simmons mentioned, "Because the time reflected when people came together to overcome the odds, helping others to find freedom."

"Lida, who represented Caroline, discovers who she is when she discovers that freedom," Simmons continues and then adds, "There is nothing more empowering than knowing who you are and where you came from."

As the audience travels along with Lida on her journey in DeVita's play, they begin to realize by seeing these harsh realities what being free means, in the body, mind and soul, the inalienable and the priceless human right the word freedom encompasses. Where no man, woman or child could ever be sold for 15 dollars per pound. How there will continually be people along the way willing to assist someone when a person commits to begin that journey for freedom.

Be sure to see the play, experience the sights and sounds underscored by the reverent music in the production, written in the souls of all human hearts. First Stage has commissioned an extraordinary timeless classic for all generations, to be remembered. A production that invites all those to continue the fight for freedom, wherever necessary, for those who would be mistreated or oppressed. All peoples have a right to look towards a heaven that would enable them to know who they are, where they came from and to take a journey to their own personal freedom. To discover people who will abolish these atrocities from society wherever they exist. And to quote a line in the play, "We weren't supposed to remember, but we all did."

First Stage presents A Midnight Cry at the Todd Wehr Theater in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts through February 9, 2014. The play is recommended for young people nine years of age and older, and has additional educational materials to use afterwards for further discussion with children. For further information or tickets, please call 414.273.7206 or

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