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BWW Review: Tennessee Women's Theater Project's Stunning Revival of SISTAS THE MUSICAL

Review: Tennessee Women's Theater Project's Stunning SISTAS THE MUSICAL

BWW Review: Tennessee Women's Theater Project's Stunning Revival of SISTAS THE MUSICAL

Five women - so very different, yet so very much alike - are gathered in the attic of the home of the family matriarch, who has just died at the age of 92, to select a special song to commemorate her life at a memorial service being held that very same evening at her home church. What happens next is rather unexpected, but serves as a brilliant reminder of the elder woman's rich and storied past, the legacy she leaves behind and, perhaps more importantly, a retelling of the evolution of African-American women in this country and the vital role they have played that has brought us - all of us - to this particular place in time.

That is the plot, the barest basics, of Sistas the Musical. Written by New York-based music historian and writer Dorothy Marcic (who previously was a professor at Nashville's Vanderbilt University), Sistas the Musical is an engaging, affecting, captivating, sometimes sentimental and often fiercely direct musical review that challenges preconceived notions and elaborates on the role of the African-American woman in American society, as told through the music of all our lives.

Directed with grace and wit by Tennessee Women's Theater Project founder Maryanna Clarke, Sistas the Musical is now onstage through May 19 at The Z. Alexander Looby Theatre, located conveniently just off Rosa Parks Boulevard in north Nashville, a historically black enclave that has been central to the civil rights struggles of the citizens of Tennessee's capital city.

That TWTP makes its onstage home at The Looby (named for famed civil right attorney Z. Alexander Looby) seems especially pertinent to the success of the show - this is the first revival of TWTP's production, its most popular ever first staged two years ago in 2017. Lisa Graham and Brittany Nelson return from the 2017 cast and are joined by LaToya Gardner, Shonka Dukureh and Aija Penix. Whether you saw the show when it was first produced, or if you're seeing it for the first time in the current iteration, you can rest assured that the story is evocatively told, amazingly sung and beautifully acted.

Sistas the Musical tells of the history of these tumultuous times via the popular music that has punctuated and underscored the social change that's marked the past century of progress, however questionable that may be, in this country. From the blues of Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey all the way up to the current hits of Beyonce, Kelis, Christina Aguilera and Erykah Badu, Sistas the Musical forthrightly and resolutely relates the female African-American experience through song in a way that challenges its audiences to action and to provoke deep thought on how far we (every single one of us, regardless of race, color, gender or sexual orientation) still have to go in order to achieve full equality.

Intriguingly, Sistas the Musical is startlingly timely and timeless: This week, after two women of color were crowned as Miss Teen USA and Miss USA, history was made . . . for the first time, those two titleholders and Miss America are African-American women, which challenges earlier generations' ideas of what the term "American beauty" actually means and, despite the notion that beauty pageants and other competitions of their ilk may have proven themselves to be irrelevant, focuses new notoriety on the search for the ideal beauty in the American pop culture zeitgeist.

Likewise, recent controversy over the 1930s recordings of then-popular yet undeniably racist songs by the iconic Kate Smith proves more potent that thought possible as the five women listen to a recording - the "favorite" of their late grandmother Alice's white employer - of Smith singing "That's Why Darkies Were Born," which contains the lyrics, "Someone had to pick the cotton, Someone had to pick the corn, Someone had to slave and be able to sing. That's why darkies were born." Your cheeks will likely burn when you hear the song and your level of consternation will likely match that of the characters discussing the song onstage. Certainly, the recording wasn't unique among the musical releases at the time, but it helps to underscore the indifference and bias that plagued American popular music of an earlier age (even if Smith sought to atone for her past transgressions: a recording of a 1945 radio interview with her has the singer making a plea for tolerance, saying that social prejudices, religious bigotry and "race hatreds" were representative of a "disease that eats away the fibers of peace.")

That is but one example of the impact of Sistas the Musical, along with the authentic performances of the five actors who bring their characters to life with such vibrant intensity. You will find yourself singing along with their wonderful interpretations of some of the best-loved songs of our lives, while being prompted to delve more deeply into academic research for personal edification.

From the plaintive melodies of 1930s-era jazz, blues and popular music through the hits of the girl groups of the 1950s and 1960s and all the way up through the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, Sistas the Musical could be misinterpreted as a jukebox musical of hit songs from the past century, when instead it is actually a vital and important consideration of our shared history of social change.

The show's score includes such wide-ranging tunes as "Oh, Happy Day," "Mama Said," "I Will Survive," "Tyrone," "I Am Not My Hair," "A Woman's Worth," "R-E-S-P-E-C-T," "We Are Family," "Single Ladies" and especially haunting and moving tributes to Billie Holiday with electrifying performances of "My Man," in which LaToya Gardner basically channels Lady Day to create a sound that evokes her very presence and style, or Shonka Dukureh's shattering version of "Strange Fruit" which leaves her audience transfixed and silent. Credit to musical director Diana K. Poe for her sublime efforts in bringing the show's music so vividly to life.

In its way, Sistas the Musical seems unique in TWTP's canon of intelligent, provocative titles that have exemplified the company's mission to "produce plays that express the human condition in the female voice," since it also represents the very best aspects of musical theatre to transform and transport its audience.

Clarke's direction keeps the play's action moving along at a nice clip - thanks is due choreographer Pam Atha for providing the five women with dance steps that somehow seems organic to what's happening in the action of the plot while never seeming to demand, "Look at us . . . we're gonna dance now!" - never faltering in its aim to engage the audience at The Looby Theatre while providing heartfelt, genuine entertainment while so doing. Her well-cast and completely capable quintet of actors who bring the show to life are consistent and committed to each of their roles and each woman brings her unique perspective to her assignment.

Gardner, absent for far too long from local stages thanks to the realities of life, motherhood and career, returns in glorious fashion as Simone, a PhD. In musical history, who imparts her wisdom throughout, while generously sharing her own maternal attributes with Aija Penix, playing her daughter Tamika, who is struggling to find her own place in the world. Gardner is regal and wonderfully present throughout the show and Penix proves her equal in every way as her fictional daughter.

Lisa Graham, returning from the 2017 cast, is superb as the optimistic Gloria, who is recently widowed and searching for her own, redefined role in the family structure and in the larger world outside the confines of her grandmother's attic. Graham has never been better - she's never looked more striking, nor has she ever sounded better despite a long resume of stellar performances. Brittany Nelson, as sister-in-law Heather (the Caucasian woman married to the sisters' brother), is another cast returnee who is given another opportunity to show off her vocal chops and estimable stage skills in her role.

Finally, Shonka Dukureh, as the diffident sister Roberta, gives an emotionally driven performance - she is by turns amusing and heartbreaking as she reveals the various layers of her character's psyche - that is leavened by her genuinely soulful and introspective reading of her role.

Sistas the Musical, even at its most serious, never seems to weigh you down with too much emotion or heartache (especially when that's what the songs are about), instead providing a hopeful, uplifting message of the power of love and camaraderie certain to buoy you through some difficult times. You owe it to yourself to see it.

Sistas the Musical. By Dorothy Marcic. Directed by Maryanna Clarke. Musical direction by Diana K. Poe. Choreography by Pam Atha. Presented by Tennessee Women's Theatre Project at The Z. Alexander Looby Theatre, Nashville. Through May 19. For further details, go to or call (615) 681-7220. Running time: 90 minutes (with no intermission).

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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis