From Motown to Oaktown

Dream Girls descends on Black Repertory Theatre, while Jericho Road tackles Oakland and its discontents.

Black Repertory Theatre director Sean Vaughn Scott has a dicey
situation on his hands. The good news: He’s got two beautiful,
big-voiced women and one beautiful, average-voiced woman to star in the
current production of Dream Girls. The bad news: Their male
counterparts don’t match up. Once the first act gets underway, you’re
left wondering if the stars will align at all. How, for instance, will
the snappy, full-figured diva Effie White ever get together with slimy
record executive Curtis Taylor? It works in the movie, but in this
version, Effie — played by the ferocious Danesha Simon —
far upstages Curtis (a bumbling Charles Hardy Jr.). He’s no Jamie Foxx,
and to be quite honest, he doesn’t seem fast enough for her. Vaughn
Scott was apparently thinking the same thing.

His solution? Jettison most of the plot. It’s a predictable script
anyhow: Members of an ambitious girl group — the Dreamettes
— make several Faustian bargains just to get a footing in the
music business. Starry-eyed and naive, they fall into the clutches of
nefarious men, get burned, and come out having gleaned some vague
lesson about racism, misogyny, and how you can’t trust anyone. Scott
keeps a few of these details in his production, mostly as signifiers
for people who already know the story. A lot of the background
information gets elided.

Yet Scott enlisted some incredible talent to help glue the show
together and amplify the parts that work. Simon, for one, is an
incredible singer. Just who is that Danesha Simon, anyway? She’s
apparently a Black Rep regular, having starred alongside rapper Suga T
in her own gospel play Misery Loves Company, which showed in
early June. Otherwise, she’s somewhat unknown, but a phenomenal singer
nonetheless. Her performance of Effie’s signature number “And I Am
Telling You I’m Not Going” had enough wattage to impress the Sunday
night crowd at Black Rep, which is no easy feat, considering the range
the song requires. Hardy is no match, song-wise or stage-wise (he makes
a lot of big arm movements and has trouble hitting the high notes), but
Nicolia Bagby is quite charming as Deena Jones, the play’s resident
Diana Ross. Meanwhile, Overstreet steals all the thunder (bad pun
intended) from the other male leads with his garish, glittery sports
jackets and James Brown dance moves.

Granted, the best elements of this Dream Girls are ancillary
to the play itself. It kicks off with a variety show modeled after
Showtime at the Apollo — really an excuse to feature all
the fabulous singers and outrageous costumes that Vaughn Scott has at
his disposal. Other highlights include dance choreography by Reginald
Ray Savage, dexterous piano accompaniment by Kito Gamble, and two
gratuitous performances by ex-Tower of Power singer Lenny Williams,
doing his hits. The rest of the play needs some rejiggering. There are
a few pregnant pauses when actors try to remember their lines, and some
interminable pauses between scenes, while the actresses change frocks.
At points, it seems a little unpolished — more like notes toward
Dream Girls rather than the actual Dream Girls. But the
raw materials are first-rate.

While the East Bay dabbles in Motown history, a San Francisco
theater troupe is romancing with the East Bay — Oakland in
particular. John Rosenberg’s new play The Jericho Road Improvement
Association
is showing at the Phoenix Theatre, a small black box in
downtown San Francisco. Staged by Rosenberg’s company Hella Fresh
Theatre, it’s a searing drama that purports to be about race relations
and law enforcement, though it’s actually about white men — white
policemen, in particular — trying to deal with race, both as a
construct and a reality. Ex-corrupt-cop Paul (Fred Sharkey) tries to
atone for his sins (planting guns, murdering unarmed suspects,
committing perjury) by opening a dive bar on Martin Luther King Jr. Way
in West Oakland. He installs a pool table, hangs a Raiders pennant over
the bar, and decorates the place with photos of fallen civil rights
heroes to form a tawdry shrine. As one of his cop friends points out,
it’s a bizarre form of black face and a rather misguided way of playing
the Good Samaritan (note the reference to the parable of Jericho
Road).

Despite its thorny subject matter and rather damaging portrayal of
Oakland law enforcement, the play has a lot of captivating elements.
The acting is pretty spot-on. Sharkey is great as the sad sack Paul,
Sam Leichter provides comic relief as Jesse, a BART security
guard-turned-wannabe rapper (i.e., modern minstrel), and newbie Abel
Habtegeorgis steals the show as Cash, the play’s single black
character. (He comments more on the action than advances it, but he’s
got all the best lines.) Jericho Road teems with references to
crooked cops — the Riders and the BART police, even though it’s
set in 2000. But it’s ultimately a morally ambiguous play. It does,
however, have one thing in common with Dream Girls: Both
productions claim to be about one thing, and turn out to be about
something else. 

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