Review: THE HELLO GIRLS at Phoenix Theatre Company

Michelle Chin, Rosemarie Chandler,
Gabrielle Smith, Bonnie Beus Romney,
and Carmiña Garey

Photo by Reg Madison Photography

Similar to recent films like Hidden Figures, which helped shed light on the virtually unknown stories of how women were involved in important historical events, the musical The Hello Girls introduces us to Grace Barker, the woman who led a group of skilled female switchboard operators serving in the U.S. Army in France during the final battles of World War I. It’s a superb new musical that focuses on this remarkable woman and the dozens of others who were some of the first to break the “glass ceiling” of serving in the Army, even though they barely got any recognition for their efforts. The Phoenix Theatre Company is presenting the regional premiere in a smashing production with a wonderful cast, rich creative elements, and excellent direction, resulting in a moving theatrical experience.

The story focuses on Barker and four of the women who worked for her. Their story is set in motion when General John J. Pershing issues a request for female switchboard operators who are fluent in both English and French to serve in the Army in order to more quickly field calls from the base in Chaumont, France. More than 5000 women applied and 223 served, managing millions of calls during their time. They were dubbed “the hello girls,” a reference to the way they answered the calls: “Hello, how may I connect your call?” Barker was chosen to head up this new division, which was overseen by Captain Riser, the somewhat misogynistic and “by the book” Army man who was assigned to interview and hire the group of women and who often doubted their abilities and didn’t think they should be as close as they were to the enemy lines. The struggle for Barker and the other “girls” to be seen as equals, and to prove they are just as loyal, smart, and patriotic as the men in the Army, is the main focus of the plot. There is also an epilogue that gives facts about the characters after the war and shows how it took years for the women to get the recognition they deserved.

The show premiered in 2018 at Prospect Theater Company, where founders Peter Mills and Cara Reichel were also the show’s creators, with both writing the show’s book, Mills writing the music and lyrics, and Reichel directing. The well-crafted book provides plenty of character development for Barker, the four other “girls,” Riser, and Pershing, and Mills’ score is rich and evocative with witty lyrics and wonderful rhymes in a range of musical styles. Reichel repeats directing duties for the Phoenix Theatre production with fluid movement and layered character portrayals from the wonderful cast.

Grace, played by Rosemarie Chandler, is a force of constant determination, although sometimes she finds herself doubting or second guessing her own abilities. Fortunately, her friend and former co-worker Suzanne is a sounding board and confidante, and Gabrielle Smith exhibits a beautiful amount of strength in that role. Michelle Chin is appropriately innocent and slightly confused as Helen, who hadn’t left her Idaho farm before joining the Army; Carmiña Garey is feisty and fun as the French-born Louise, the 18-year-old who lies about her age so she is able to join; and Bonnie Beus Romney is Bertha, the older, married member of the group who exhibits poise and grace under pressure even though her husband is off fighting the war.

While Riser is the antagonist of the piece, Mills and Reichel’s script beautifully depicts him as a conflicted man and Teddy Ladley does a wonderful job portraying the many layers of Riser. As General Pershing, Scott Wakefield, who created the role in the Prospect Theater production, exhibits a layer of fatherly charm that adds poignancy to the show under a steely military exterior. Alex Crossland, Keiji Ishiguri, and Kevin Robert White portray numerous other characters with ease, with Crossland’s portrayal of the soldier who takes a shine to Suzanne especially heartwarming.

With the exception of just a few instruments, the majority of the cast also double as the orchestra and they are all adept musicians under White’s music direction. Many even play numerous instruments throughout. Reichel’s musical staging exhibits tight choreography as the actors trade off instruments and move set pieces around on Douglas Clarke’s beautiful multi-layer wood set. Clarke uses a mass of cords that evoke telephone wires doubling as a screen for the beautiful projections by Dallas Nichols, which incorporate archival pictures and video to help depict the period and various settings. The choreography by Molly Lajoie is bright, fun, and well danced by the cast. Daniel Davisson’s lighting paints the stage in beautiful images, including a fairly realistic portrayal of a fire, and the costumes by Cari Sue Smith are a wonderful combination of period pieces and modern street clothes used for the modern-day period framing device which helps provide a connection between the past and the present.

The Hello Girls is a refreshing and rewarding musical that sheds light on these unknown women. It’s both a patriotic musical and a lesson in feminism as it honors the first women soldiers in the U.S. Army. It’s also a rich, rousing and enjoyable piece of theater and an eye-opening history lesson.

The Hello Girls runs through January 30, 2022, at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 1825 N Central Avenue, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, visit or by calling 602-254-2151.

Music and Lyrics by Peter Mills; Book by Peter Mills and Cara Reichel
Director/Musical Staging: Cara Reichel
Choreographer: Molly Lajoie
Musical Director: Kevin Robert White
Assistant Director: Elise Palma
Dialect and Language Coach: Pasha Yamotahari
Scenic Designer: Douglas Clarke
Lighting Designer: Daniel Davisson
Video Designer: Dallas Nichols
Sound Designer: Dave Temby
Costume Designer: Cari Sue Smith
Hair + Makeup Designer: Shelby Joiner
Properties Master: Sarah Harris br> Director of Production: Karla Frederick
Stage Manager: Michelle Elias*
Assistant Stage Manager: Maylea Bauers*
Covid Safety Manager: Tatiana Trujillo
Company Manager/Assoc. Production Manager: Tyler Welden

Cast: (in alphabetical order)
Grace Banker: Rosemarie Chandler*
Helen Hill/Dance Captain: Michelle Chin*
Pvt. Eugene Matterson/Others: Alex Crossland
Agnes Coleman: Alicia Ferrin
Louise LeBreton: Carmiña Garey
Pvt. Robert Dempsey/Others: Keiji Ishiguri
Cpt. Joseph Riser: Teddy Ladley
Bertha Hunt: Bonnie Beus Romney
Suzanne Prevot: Gabrielle Smith*
General John Pershing: Scott Wakefield*
Lt. Ernest Wessen/Others: Kevin Robert White*

*Members of Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.

This review is by Gil Benbrook for Talkin’ Broadway.

“Carl Hancock Rux: Marking History, Juneteenth 2021 at Lincoln Center” by Ifa Bayeza

November 8, 2021 – By Ifa Bayeza

Director and curator Carl Hancock Rux. Photographer Ifa Bayeza.

Carl Hancock Rux is a tour de force. We first met at a Theatre Communications Guild panel in 1998. That day, he invited me to his concert performance which launched Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater on October 16. I did attend that day, and I’ve been following Carl’s creative career ever since.

That first event was a concert reading of his opera, Blackamoor Angel, about the Sub-Saharan African Angelo Soliman, who in 1727 was kidnapped and enslaved at the age of eight and brought to Vienna, Austria. There he rose in stature to become tutor and chamberlain to princes, colleague to Mozart and Haydn, and confidante of the emperor. Yet, upon his death, his skin was flayed from his flesh and stuffed for display among the other African “beasts” in the imperial natural history collection, where it remained until destroyed by fire fifty years later.[1]

Elements emblematic of Rux’s later style were evident in the opera’s embryonic performance. As librettist and leader, he had assembled a powerful collaborative team, including composer Deirdre Murray, director Karin Coonrod, a full chamber orchestra with a chorus of powerful singers. The story of Soliman’s anguished history was conveyed with a sonorous lyricism that revealed a mind equally intellectual and poetic, as well as one keenly aware of environment. In this case, the loud cacophony and excitement of a club opening seemed to evoke the atmosphere surrounding Rux’s woeful protagonist in both his glory and ignominy. The space became part of the drama.

My next encounter was his musing on James Baldwin for New York City’s 2014 Year of James Baldwin, a celebration of the pioneering writer. Rux’s tribute imagined an encounter between Baldwin and iconic musical genius Dinah Washington, played magnificently by Marcelle Davies-Lashley. A byzantine crystal chandelier lay on the floor while, at the nadir of her career, the famed blues singer talked to her reflection in her backstage dressing-room mirror. Then, in a documentary video clip of a contentious interview between Baldwin and an assaultive interlocutor, Baldwin riddled every question in a percussive, high tenor staccato, precise as artillery. Interwoven were scenes with prose spoken in Rux’s hypnotic baritone, delivered with his signature stillness. While the parts remain nebulous in memory, the impression of the whole lingers still.

Since that time, the two of us have had numerous collaborative adventures. On the eve of the publication of my novel Some Sing, Some Cry, co-authored with my sister Ntozake Shange, Ntozake and I gathered some friends to read sections of the book in her Brooklyn garden. Rux read a passage of mine. Upon discovering that a jolly bachelor party descends into a gang rape of the house maid, Rux expertly shifted his delivery with such profound abruptness, it took one’s breath. A few years later, as Distinguished Visiting Artist at Brown University, I invited him to direct two of my plays, String Theory and Welcome to Wandaland. More recently, in 2018, when I was Resident Artist in New Iberia, Louisiana, Rux came down to help mount my musical, Bunk Johnson. . .a blues poem, which made its debut the week after my sister died. Given the circumstances, it was the last place I wanted to be, but so many people were depending on me, I powered through, learning how to swallow my pain and exhale joy. That was Bunk’s story and mine, too, that week. Rux with his electric energy and insanely funny antics off-stage—so different from the gravitas of his stage persona—kept me buoyant. These prefatory remarks should serve as full disclosure: when it comes to Carl Hancock Rux, I am both a friend and fan.

It was with great anticipation that I made plans to see his production celebrating Juneteenth on Saturday, June 19, 2021 at New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. By divine serendipity, only two days before, the date had just been declared a federal holiday and signed into law by President Biden. The declaration was sprung upon the nation so fast that there was little time to absorb the significance, let alone the facts behind the date: the final triumph of the Union in the Civil War, the acknowledgement, if not acceptance, of defeat by the rebellious Confederacy, and, in the “land of the free,” the liberation of four million people from state-sanctioned human bondage.

While the state of Louisiana and parts of South Carolina had been under Union occupation since 1862 and ’63, respectively, and though Robert E. Lee had signed the treaty of surrender to General Grant at Appomattox in April 1865, Texas—long cultivated as a laboratory for the slavocracy’s imperial ambition—was the last hold-out. Desperately clinging to their dream and “property,” slaveholders aplenty from Louisiana to Arkansas had fled with their caravans and coffles of Africans to the far reaches of the state. On the island of Galveston, just off the Gulf Coast, Union General Gordon Granger got around to announcing our emancipation to a small cluster of Black folk on June 19, 1865, two months after the war purportedly was over. On the balcony of the Alton Hotel, he read from a handwritten note, just ninety-three words:

The people are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, become that between employer and hired labor. The freed are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.[2]

Banished to the post by General Grant, who disliked him, Granger seemed to have no grasp of the moment’s significance. While there is no record of the crowd’s response, such is the poetry of Black folk that someone put our jubilation into a contraction—Juneteenth! Ever since, African Americans have marked the day with celebration. First in Texas and then nationally, it has become a date of memory—collective joy—when we as a people may commemorate both triumph and deliverance, and if a bit qualified, the declaration of our independence and “absolute equality.” To mark the date, Carl Hancock Rux’s Juneteenth exposition at Mr. Lincoln’s Center was a Happening, in all senses of the word: a multimedia, multi-genre performance, traveling across space, time, and history.


As I arrived, a medley of pre-show guests gathered under a huge white tent, pitched on the 62nd Street side of the Center. Though the sky threatened rain, Lincoln Center Executive Director and CEO Henry Timms, standing at the entrance, greeted everyone with elation. Rux’s presentation was to be part of the re-envisioning of Lincoln Center, democratizing the vast concrete plaza as the new public square. The repurposed environment, he explained, would include a voting center/vaccine center and the newly created green space—which, even under the ominous, greying skies, was filled with young families and children frolicking on the man-made hills. The Juneteenth program was one of Lincoln Center’s first public events, post-Covid, and though the attendance would be limited, the sense of release and relief defied even the few protean sprinkles. Everyone carried an umbrella tucked away. We weren’t going to miss this.

In short order, Rux appeared, wearing a white summer tuxedo of his own design, with a red and black floral shirt, the pants Bermuda-length—Frederick Douglass meets Patrick Kelly. (A characteristic of Mabou Mines, where Rux has been a long-standing member: when the director arrives, the show begins.) His tailored white jacket’s breast pocket was emblazoned with the words “REFUSE, RESIST, REBEL, REVOLT,” and wound round the jacket sleeve were double black armbands of mourning. On the back of the jacket were silkscreened images of a quartet of photos from Carrie Mae Weems’s 1995 exhibition, mounted in response to “Hidden Witness,” the Getty Museum exhibition showcasing antebellum images from their archives of Black lives. Among her creations were four re-treated photographs originally made in Columbia, South Carolina in 1850 at the behest of Louis Agassiz, the celebrated father of American natural science. They are among the earliest known photographs of Southern slaves. In his dogged effort to disprove the fundamental equality of man, Agassiz had the four subjects stripped naked and posed, vulnerable and powerless. Weems overlays each image with plexiglass tinted a dense, fresh-blood red.

Director and curator Carl Hancock Rux and guest at
pre-show reception. Photographer Ifa Bayeza.

As Rux moved about greeting guests—Carrie Mae, herself, Lynn Nottage (who contributed lyrics for the event), colleagues from Mabou Mines—this quartet of Africans silkscreened to Rux’s back in that field of white, stood as sentinels, both shielding the wearer and silently alarming and assaulting viewers with their dignity, sorrow, and rage: their humiliation brimming from eyes glazed with tears.

His shoes spoke of another era: Platform, patent-leather with crepe ties, they were Cotton-Club-Cab-Calloway-Josephine dancerly! The pre-show costume was an overture, a condensed highlight of what was to come. The pain, the joy, Black taps and Taps.

A stunning young African-American couple arrived late to the gathering, dressed in matching white quilted fabric: the woman in a flowing sheath with an irregular hem cut on the bias, and the man in loose knee britches and tunic, their hair African crowns of natural spirals. They turned out to be our guides for the evening: Jamel Gaines as “Emansuh Patience, an escaped slave man” and Valerie Louisey as an “Anonymous Woman.” Later joined by veteran actor Stephanie Berry, playing “Ain’tGotNuhPatience,” the three together, through dance, gesture, and improvised prompting, would usher us through the multi-tiered event.

There was no printed program. The evening would demand our undivided attention without distracted glances at the page. Background information provided later allowed me to contextualize what I had experienced. In the moment, though, the absence of a program was part of the event. Untethered, I became kin to thousands of my forebears, freeing themselves by fleeing toward the Union lines. Largely nonliterate, for centuries as fugitives, they had made their way by reliance on the signs in quilts and nature, the coded lyrics of a song, patterns in the sky. Could they read the stars on a grey night such as this?

The evening was to be a sort of “station drama,” most often associated with both the medieval mystery play and German expressionist theatre. The clandestine stops of the Underground Railroad, commonly referred to as “stations,” also came to mind, as random parties of the audience moved sometimes warily from space to space, unsure of what was to come.

Rux’s work has enjoyed an ever-shifting traveling band of extraordinary collaborators. The Juneteenth Project was comprised of an ensemble of about fifteen performers and a dozen crew members, among them, in addition to Nottage, Rhythm & Blues Foundation Hall of Famer Nona Hendryx (better known now for her new age experimentation), singer-songwriter Toshi Reagon, and again Marcelle Davies-Lashley. Rux conceived the event and served as curator, researcher, and director. The evening, however, seemed a creative collective. Each of the component parts had a distinct flavor and scale. All possessed the vivid and intense sounds and colors of Blackness in simultaneous mourning and celebration.

The performance spread over three distinct settings across the center’s vast campus. One setting to the north would occupy the Hearst Plaza and the Olympic-size Paul MiIlstein Pool. Another performance area would run alongside 62nd Street and abut Damrosch Park. In front of the opera house on the walkway connecting the north and south campus sat a giant trapezoidal platform at least a story-and-a-half tall.

Constructed by Diane Smith, the tower was skirted with undulating waves of ruffled paper that spilled onto the granite at its base. Atop sat the torso of a diminutive human, Helga Davis as “Statue of Liberty? (One Tall Angel),” her exquisite ebony face framed by the twilight and a very animated cerulean wig. She completed the ensemble with mismatched red and white evening gloves. In front of the opera house, she was delivering an absurdist Dada-inspired aria of the National Anthem. Beckoned by “Aintgotnuh Patience,” I proceeded to the next installation.

Read the full article by Ifa Bayeza for The Massachusetts Review here.

Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival Review: THE TEMPEST, Directed by Ryan Quinn

Ryan Quinn, Director

“The Tempest” is a beautiful, exciting, and fitting production to conclude the festival’s thirty-four-year tenure at Boscobel. (The company is decamping to a nearby, equally glorious setting along the Hudson next season.) Under the incisive direction of Ryan Quinn, and with thrilling choreography by Susannah Millonzi, the play, Shakespeare’s last, opens with the titular storm expressionistically illustrated with the help of a Nina Simone recording—she’ll make another dramatic contribution later—and the energy and artistry never flag. Three key roles are superbly filled. Britney Simpson’s Ariel is a marvel of physical sprightliness and musical and emotional heft. The same could be said of Jason O’Connell’s Caliban, a damaged monster with a poetic soul and a voice that ranges from beastly growl to soaring song. And Howard W. Overshown powerfully embodies the complex Prospero, struggling within himself between violence and mercy, revenge and forgiveness. Shakespeare’s ruminations on the evanescence of experience are magically given life on this fantastic island.

Ken Marks, The New Yorker

Theatre Review: Psalmayene 24’s ‘The Blackest Battle’ presented streaming by Theatre Alliance

Gary Perkins as Bliss and Imami Branch as Dream in Theatre Alliance’s “The Blackest Battle.” Photo courtesy of Theatre Alliance.

Psalmayene 24’s latest production is “The Blackest Battle,” a parable set to a love story set in the near future where America has gone through a second civil war after reparations were finally made to Black people. Black people live in a territory called Chief County where they fight against the cascading effects of slavery — Black-on-Black gun violence, rivalries, and a drug called Hope, which is psychologically addictive (it’s some combination of technology and plant-based which seems to take hold through music).

Go to the Theatre Alliance website and buy a ticket. Psalmayene 24 has given us entrée into a world we need to see and hear and feel — now.

Psalmayene 24 has built his story on the bones of “Romeo & Juliet,” with a hearty nod to “West Side Story.” At one point, even under the hip-hop background, I could hear echoes of “Gee Officer Krupe” in the dialogue. It is a clever homage.

Only in Chief County, our two rival gangs are two rival music entrepreneurs, vying for top billing and away out of gun dealing, and more. In this stripped-down, fast-paced version, the action coalesces when Dream (Imami Branch) meets Bliss (Gary Perkins) and he persuades her to spend a couple of hours with him while he shows her the underpass and introduces her to Hope.

The one thing her posse won’t allow is using Hope — the leader of their group’s mother died from it. But when Dream tries it with Bliss, she sees a world of possibility for Black people to move forward and unleash their creativity, minds, and souls.

Unfortunately, life isn’t that kind. While Bliss and Dream sit under the Underpass (Branch and Perkins have a delectable chemistry together), they see a wall of names painted in little white-rimmed rectangles — the names of everyone dead by gun violence for that year. The names are actually of those who have died by gun violence in Washington, DC this past year, and it’s a harsh, unescapable reality. In “The Blackest Battle,” someone will die of gun violence between the rival groups, but it won’t be Bliss or Dream. It will be basically a bystander, an innocent who came upon them and offered some advice.

Tightly directed by Raymond O. Caldwell, the production team does a masterful job of blending the graphic art (Wesley Clark, Camilla King and Maliah Stokes), background art (Rodney “Buck” Herring), props (Amy Kellett), lighting (Dylan Uremovich), sound (Matthew M. Nielson), and photography (Kelly Colburn, who also did the video editing). Animation by Jeremy Bennett, Deja Collins, Dylan Uremovich, and Visual FX artists Kelly Colburn, Deja Collins, Jonathan Dahm Robertson, and Dylan Uremovich bring visual verve and punch to the music, dance, and dialogue.

But it’s not cartoonish, in the sense of being cute or at a safe remove. This is a visceral show that demands the audience acknowledge and think about the deleterious and on-going effects of centuries of abuse, cruelty, and dehumanization that have led to names on an underpass. The show makes these points with force and vigor because these people have basically died in a war, but where is the memorial honoring their sacrifices?

Go to the Theatre Alliance website and buy a ticket. Psalmayene 24 has given us entrée into a world we need to see and hear and feel — now.

This is an ambitious show, and I’m sorry I didn’t see the original conception when it was presented at the Kennedy Center’s “Page to Stage.”

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes without intermission.

Advisory: Adult language and drug use. For mature teens and older.

“The Blackest Battle” streams through the end of August 2021 from Theatre Alliance, Washington, DC. For more information, please click here. 

Read the full article by Mary Ann Johnson from MD Theatre Guide here.

‘Blackest Battle,’ Psalmayene 24’s Graphic Novel Come to Life, is a Monumental Accomplishment

Sit back relax
and put ya programs away

If ya ignant
You gon learn today

—The Ring Master in The Blackest Battle

Psalmayene 24

Raymond O. Caldwell’s realization of Psalmayene 24’s The Blackest Battle — a graphic novel come to life as a hip-hop musical is a feast of virtuosity. Whereas some have been frustrated with not having access to live theater, Theater Alliance has taken this opportunity to offer something that some of us might not sit still for in the usual sanctum sanctorum of live theater. In fact, the point of this production is kind of to make us not be able to (or want to) sit still or sit back. The Blackest Battle presents theater that more fully engages the potential of hip-hop than is often possible in “legit” stages where traditional audiences may come with curated expectations and sometimes merely tolerate the hip-hop form and keep its power at a distance.

This production, though onscreen, is an immersive experience. Whereas much theater keeps technology in the background, so as not to disturb the illusion it is intending to produce, this production puts technology center stage, using it to reflect the way we use technology in our daily lives. It is delightful and enticing in its form and it is harrowing in its emotional impact. It’s a monumental accomplishment. And it is not to be missed.

Kelsey Delemar as the Ring Master in ‘The Blackest Battle.’ Photo courtesy of Theater Alliance.

Many people experience Shakespeare as someone literally on a pedestal to be worshipped and his works memorized. However, some people have been able to experience him as an innovator of language and form. That innovation of language and form seems to be something that this show resonates with, treating Shakespeare more like a warrior on the same battlefield with some of the same goals, whose work is to be relied upon, appreciated, and inspired by rather than someone out of reach. When a segment of Romeo and Juliet is read by Dream (Imani Branch), a member of the rap crew Key Enterprises, it doesn’t even seem out of place with the hip-hop universe. Take a look.

From Romeo and Juliet:

For beauty starved with her severity
Cuts beauty off from all posterity.
She is too fair, too wise, wisely too fair,
To merit bliss by making me despair:
She hath forsworn to love and in that vow
Do I live dead, that live to tell it now.

Bonita, from The Blackest Battle:

The reality is that I was born with my sexuality
And I refuse to be a casualty of your brutality
I know that I’m charged up now like a new battery
But that’s cause the situation’s rotten like a cavity
I’m talkin’ bout the judgment and discrimination
Cuzz I’ll never have husband some folks stay hatin’

Battle uses Romeo and Juliet for its plot structure. Through that structure the show addresses the ongoing struggle of African Americans to survive the pressures put on them by this country.

In a future, described by our narrator, The Ring Master (portrayed with sensual confidence by Kelsey Delemar), as being “distant enough to feel remote, but close enough to be familiar,” the United States has experienced a second Civil War and reparations to descendants of enslaved Africans have been made. It is well known that in Chief County, a reparations settlement that is run and controlled by Black folks, Black people in this enclave often kill each other.

The Capulets and the Montagues in Chief County are the two rap crews Lock Music and Key Enterprises. Do or Die (a formidable and wily Louis Davis), the leader of Key Enterprises, insists that his group’s music remind its audience of the situations they are living in so that they can organize themselves to address those situations. He is fiercely opposed to his group members using Hope, the drug of choice in Chief County. He fires group member Bonita (the indomitable Jade Jones), who has reneged on her promise to stop using it. Dream (Imani Branch, living up to her character’s name) is Do or Die’s cousin and a member of the group. She defends Bonita, pointing out that they need someone to supply beats for this evening’s Fourth of July rent party.

Jade Jones as Bonita and Louis Davis as Do or Die, members of rap crew Key Enterprises; Bayou Elom as Sgt. Pepper and Emmanuel Kyei-baffour as Ty, members of rap crew Lock Music, in ‘The Blackest Battle.’ Photo courtesy of Theater Alliance.

On the other side of town, Sgt. Pepper (an eager, trigger-happy party animal, Bayou Elom), the leader of Lock Music, is determined to provide joy for his audiences, relief from the pressures they are living under. Group member Bliss (Gary Perkins, living up to his character’s name) is the soft-spoken, innovative poet, and Ty (a forceful and trustworthy Emmanuel Kyei-baffour) is the group’s dress-wearing DJ, who needs to upgrade his skills in order for the group to move to the next level and meet the challenge of opening for the top-rated group in the county.

At the set-up for the rent party, Bliss and Dream make eye contact across a crowded room and fall in love at first sight. They slip away to watch the fireworks from the pier. The pier — which is the dividing line between East and West Chief County, a place where the soothing presence of a body of water can be experienced, and the place where, in the past, cargoes of enslaved Africans were delivered — has become an unofficial safe zone.

It starts to rain and Dream and Bliss take shelter under The Bridge, the underside of which is covered with the names of people who have been killed in Chief County. They are joined there by the Ringmaster who affirms the rightness of their efforts to be open to loving each other. Shortly thereafter the other members of Lock Music and Key Enterprises show up, having decided to settle their rivalry “the Darwinian way.” They demand that Bliss and Dream separate from each other and rejoin their respective teams. Gunshots are fired and the Ring Master is killed. The remaining people leave the scene while the Ringmaster speaks a posthumous plea:

The Ring Master:

Spittin to you from the other side
You just caught a glimpse of the way that I died

Hush sweet darlin’ don’t you cry
This is just fiction, a slum village lullaby
But it’s also an alarm clock
Meant to wake you up like a five a.m. gunshot
It’s just a function of the play’s plot

A last-ditch effort, what the hell and the blood claat
Maybe we should burn down all the gun shops
Cuz come the fire or the flood, the violence it must stop
It must stop, it must stop, it must stop

This production reminded me of the technological achievements of Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse: there is more here than you can possibly take in on a single viewing. Visually we are, from the beginning, in more than one place at once. We are in this present pandemic and in this future calamity. We are in a hyperpoetic theater space, a graphic novel space, but also in a naturalistic film space and an animated space.

But where Spiderman was clearly a movie, with a fourth wall, Battle still feels like theater (with a kind of Dr. Who-ish flavor). In The Blackest Battle the sets are colored backdrops or projections that shift shape and formation the way a frame does in a graphic novel or comic strip. Characters’ phone controls light up on their fingers (thanks to finger-cap touchscreen technology developed by Preston Bezos, illegitimate son of Jeff Bezos, “a real microchip off the old block”) and the text or video of conversations is projected on screens that the audience can see through and read, if they’re fast enough. It’s an environment that the audience gets to imagine living in and that it discovers along with the cast.

Gary Perkins as Lock Crew member Bliss and Imani Branch as Key Enterprises member Dream in in ‘The Blackest Battle.’ Photo courtesy of Theater Alliance.

This multi-visual, technologically overcharged world onstage reflects the world we all live in offstage — a highly surrealistic world — made so largely by the contradictory dictates of white supremacy upon our lives. A world in which the words that come out of your mouth and the plot turns that your life takes can sound like a “corny movie from the 1980s or some sappy Elizabethan play.”

In Battle, Psalmayene 24 wrestles with inherited, dictated, and curated forms of theater the way Jacob wrestled with the angel in the Hebrew scriptures. The Blackest Battle is definitely a musical. I’m 70 years old, raised in mid-20th-century COGIC culture. I used to be concerned about not being able to relate to hip-hop. But experiencing The Blackest Battle, I found I no more needed to understand hip-hop to be lifted and carried away by the integrity and earnest and steadfast warriorship it offers than I need to understand Viennese operetta to be engaged with Showboat.

What can you say about the love story? It’s delightful. Surely no one has ever been this young, zestful, and beautiful. Which is why they are named Dream and Bliss, I guess: and why the main lyrics to their love song are “Da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da.” Imani Branch and Gary Perkins invest a sincerity and a disciplined craftsperson’s respect for and faith in their material. They neither short-change nor rush anything. Wow, does that investment ever pay off!

Two scenes were notably thought-provoking for me: the interruption of the love scene The Ringmaster makes in order to ensure that we understand what the drug Hope is, and the animated, historical accounting of African American mistreatment that Dream and Bliss experience while under the influence of the drug Hope.

Effects of the drug Hope in ‘The Blackest Battle.’ Photo courtesy of Theater Alliance.

The Ring Master presents us with a corporate-slick promotional announcement for Hope in which all the researchers, clients, and manufacturers shown in clean, well-lighted rooms are white. And they look suspiciously like professional actors hired to do an industrial film. While whenever Hope is being actively used by consumers, or sold in shadowy street locations, it is in the bodies and hands of Black folks. The presentation of Hope as a drug and the suggestion that Black folks could be addicted to it is disturbing (remember the quick announcement of forgiveness for Dylan Roof?). How does one live without it? What does one put in its place?

The Blackest Battle is a thrilling experience that is guaranteed to entertain, challenge, and inspire its audience.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes.

The Blackest Battle premiered July 31, 2021, and will be available for scheduled online streams through the month of August. Tickets (General Admission, $25 – $30; Seniors/Students/Military, $20 – $25; Radical Neighboring, $15) are available online or by calling 202-241-2539.

Read the full article by Gregory Ford for DC Metro Theater Arts here.