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BLACKBERRY DAZE at the Paul Robeson

THE BASICS:  Finishing up the Paul Robeson Theatre’s 50th season, DAZE is an original small ensemble “costume” musical by Thomas W. Jones II, based upon a novel by Ruth P. Watson.  The original score is by William Knowles.  Writer Jones also directs the Robeson’s company of seven (two play double roles).  BLACKBERRY DAZE runs weekends through May 27th, at the African American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Avenue.  The show, with its single intermission, runs approximately 2 hours.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  The action takes place in a little town in Virginia, shortly after the end of the Great War.  Smooth operator Herman Camm, narcissist, gambler and womanizer, simultaneously worms his way into the lives of three local women—the gullible, very recently widowed Mae Lou, her school-age daughter Carrie, and Pearl, the bad-girl singer at the local gin joint.  There’s additional unattractive male behavior from Willie, Pearl’s snarling, brutish, part-time (read: much-travelling) husband.  When the at first surprised, then agonized Carrie discovers that she is pregnant, this brooding, small town drama really takes off!

THE PLAY, THE PLAYERS AND THE PRODUCTION:   Author Jones has subtitled his piece A MURDER ROMANCE IN THE KEY OF BLUES, but this is really quite misleading.  Yes, there’s a murder, but it’s a logical outcome of, not a springboard for, the plot. Don’t expect a detective, clues, anything of that sort.  Further, it’s a real stretch to talk about the man-woman interactions here as romance.  Lust, certainly, and sex-for-advantage.  But romance?  Not in my book.  The songs, lively but none too bluesy, are more informed by gospel than anything else.

DAZE is really intimate social/domestic drama.  It’s pretty gritty, too–quite unusual for musical theater.  Once we get past the muddy choral opening, and start to figure out who’s who, audience interest builds.  And while the focus shifts about in the early going (same as in the book, I’ve been told), once the narrative settles on the victimized Carrie, it’s “all systems go”.

The Robeson cast is decidedly strong.

The Robeson cast is decidedly strong.  Fisher certainly fills the bill as cocky, sleazy Herman Camm, who causes most of the trouble.  Once she emerges front and center, it’s Danielle Green as Carrie who carries (sorry) the show.  Here is some really heartfelt acting.   As the “good” but easily seduced widow, Mae Lou, Latosha Payton gets my vote for best vocalist in a cast full of good ones.  As the seductive, amoral Pearl, statuesque Tifani Wofford score points in both the acting and singing departments.  Augustus Donaldson’s inability to clearly differentiate his Willie and Simon characters is the only real acting- related problem.  I’ll admit that I was confused right to the end.

The score was laid down with aplomb by Frazier Thomas Smith, playing piano onstage.  There are some good, uptempo, gospel style songs.  The cast consistently provides lovely multi-part harmonies.  There were diction problems, however; lyrics get lost, especially during the ensemble numbers.  I believe that this relates, in good part, to the Robeson space itself, which seems to weirdly mute the actors’ vocal efforts.

Nicely rendered, evocative screen projections from Patrick Lord give the show almost all that it needs in terms of a set.  There are good period costumes, and also the occasional clever multi-purpose prop.  A couple of minor lighting gaffes do not significantly detract.

IN SUM:  The Paul Robeson Theatre has wrapped up its 50th season with something special–a gritty, affecting little musical going where few others have dared.  The talented and enthusiastic cast and creative team overcome some structural and technical difficulties, and help put the whole thing over with style.

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Grant Golden

Grant Golden

GRANT GOLDEN wears a number of hats. He has been practicing radiology in Buffalo since 1981, for the past 15 years, with Seton Imaging. Dr Laszlo Tabar, internationally famous mammographer, has been his special friend and mentor.

Grant began The Old Chestnut Film Society, Buffalo’s only film society, in 1983. Now in its 35th consecutive season, the OCFS does monthly screenings of Hollywood classics in 16mm.

He has written the scores (and some of the books) for a number of locally produced musicals, including the old WONDERMAKERS shows, THE OTHER ISLAND, NOBODY’S INN (Alleyway Theatre), IZZY! (Musicalfare), and ME II (Western Door Playhouse). He reviewed local plays on the radio for 20 years--on WBEN and WBFO—before making the switch to BuffaloRising.

Grant and his lovely wife Deborah live in Central Park with their dog Ginger, and cats Ella and Felix. They have three adult children, and now, happily, two grandchildren!

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