BWW Review: Restoration Stage Inc's THE VERY LAST DAYS OF THE FIRST COLORED CIRCUS a Fine, If Lengthy, Effort
For many of us, the personal struggles of past generations have faded from memory; for others, those struggles remain so vivid the resolve to preserve the stories as a living memory-as if it were just yesterday-grows exponentially.
Steven A. Butler, Jr., a Maryland native, has a truly compelling story about his La Plata great-great grandparents, whose love blossomed when the Jim Crow, Blackface era was at its height. With talent and drive, they struggled against the odds -and against an exploitative white manager - to operate a touring circus featuring only performers of color.
Butler's labor of love, The Very Last Days of the First Colored Circus, attempts to honor their memory and the memory of those who performed with them. As produced by Restoration Stage, Inc., Colored Circus offers a compelling look back at the personalities, the talent, the hideously inappropriate routines they were forced to perform, as well as the harsh living conditions that prevailed. And no, it wasn't that long ago, folks; this past ain't past by any means.
One of the many powerful lessons you take away from this show, is the way in which old demons continue to haunt us today. Racism, negative stereotyping, sexual exploitation, and the humiliations entertainers often have to endure just to get onstage are still with us; and as the cast makes a powerful protest against their white management toward the end of Colored Circus, you are reminded of the vast unfinished business of our nation.
The minute you enter the Anacostia Playhouse you note that Director Courtney Baker-Oliver (who, along with Christopher John Burnett adds some of the show's original music) has immersed you in the environment of a rag-tag circus arena, complete with ragged burlap for a roof, platforms, and a tall, charming Miles Folley in the role of Ollie Thomas, the circus's MC. Top-hat in hand, he introduces you to the lineup for the evening, a series of acts that often trafficked in the most demeaning stereotypes of black savagery and hyper-sexuality imaginable.
Butler devotes the bulk of Act 1 to revealing the backstage lives of these performers, each of them trapped in a gig that is as inescapable as it is insulting to their dignity. But he also allows the cast to shine, some of the highlights include Corisa Myers' turn as Pumpkin-a stage name that belies her incredible vocal talents-and Ayana Reed's compelling, touching turn as Ruby Dyson, the apple of Ollie's eye. It is Ruby and Ollie's romance that is the centerpiece here; they are Butler's great-great grandparents, and their attempt to find love and stability in a hostile world will keep you on the edge of your seat.
If this traveling circus has a mascot it would have to be Tumbler, played with remarkable grace and passion by Marquis Fair. Developmentally disabled, Tumbler has willingly taken to performing as a savage in animal skin, with the white manager's vague promise of being reunited with his grandmother. Even as he struggles to speak, Tumbler reveals a hard-won wisdom that is unforgettable.
Act 2 is by turns entertaining and unnerving, as we get a sampling of the stuff that passed for comedy back in 1920's America. The backstage arguments over whether to "cork up" and wear blackface might seem quaint to some, but the "watermelon" act that follows is as excruciating as it is illuminating. You watch Pumpkin and her husband, Pickles (Charles W. Harris, Jr., in a fine turn) go through the motions of their sketch, and you have to ask yourself whether the white entertainment industry ever really learned how degrading their depictions of blacks are.
But just as you congratulate yourself on being too sophisticated for racial stereotypes, Butler serves up a clever bit of satire: a mock-liberal "noble savage" sketch consisting of a Latina ("Freda," played with fine comic sensibility by Sara Hernandez) pretending to be a victimized Indian maiden, routinely ripped off by the white man but still clutching her American flag. Accurately reflecting the bigotry that passed for "sympathy" in those days, Butler reminds us that sometimes it's the folks who anoint themselves as your savior and protector who do the most to humiliate you.
There is a lot to like about Colored Circus, and it has its share of brilliant musical numbers-some of them original, some from back in the day. But Butler packs his play with so many characters, and so many plots and sub-plots, that the action stretches out to well over three hours. Given the intensely personal nature of his subject, it's understandable that Butler might err on the side of being complete and fair to each and every character onstage.
The cast, generally, rises to the challenge and manages to engage you at a high level for much of the time. But the energy, and the writing, sometimes show signs of strain and a healthy cut here or there might help future incarnations of this show, which certainly deserves further work. In my experience, it's a stronger choice to leave the audience wanting more, speculating about a characters' back story, instead of leaving no question unanswered.
Restoration Stage, Inc., is a valuable, local performance powerhouse; and this production is too timely, given all that we are experiencing in this country, to miss.
Production Photo: Miles Folley as 'Ringmaster Ollie Thomas' in Steven A. Butler, Jr.'s "The Very Last Days of the First Colored Circus." Photograph by Kimberly C. Gaines.
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes with one intermission.
The Very Last Days of the First Colored Circus runs through November 12 at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Place SE, Washington, D.C. For tickets go to https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3055681
For newcomers, the Anacostia Playhouse is five blocks from the Anacostia Metro on the Green Line, and just across the 11th Street Bridge. For directions see: http://www.anacostiaplayhouse.com/getting-here/ .