The North Carolina premiere of Blue, now playing at Raleigh Little Theatre, is a compelling domestic drama with biting book by Charles Randolph-Wright and soulful songs by Nona Hendryx and Randolph-Wright. Blue focuses on an increasingly rebellious African-American family dominated by a manipulative matriarch named Peggy Clark (Sherida L. McMullan).
A haughty, chicly dressed former model for Ebony Magazine’s Fashion Faire, Peggy always put on airs. But she becomes insufferable after she marries the mild-mannered proprietor of a prosperous Kent, SC, funeral home. Now, Peggy rules the Clark roost with an iron fist in a velvet glove. Much to the consternation of her feisty mother-in-law Tillie Clark (LaDawna Akins), Peggy completely dominates her husband Samuel Clark Jr. (Lester Hill), 20ish son Samuel Clark III (Michael Lee), and their 12-year-old son Reuben (James Patrick Clanton).
Peggy Clark dictates every aspect of her family’s daily existence, from the clothes they wear, to their hairstyles, to their choice of friends, to the (mostly takeout) food they eat, to the music playing on the family stereo. The latter would almost always be the various albums of pop singer Blue Williams (Byron Jennings II), of course.
In this entertaining memory play, the grown-up — and estranged — Reuben (LaMark Wright), a successful record producer, narrates the events of Act I, which takes place in the late 1970s, when the highly successful Clark family is about to be the subject of the cover story of Ebony Magazine, and then the adult Reuben supersedes 12-year-old Reuben in Act II, which takes place in the early 1990s, when the prodigal son returns home from Seattle to help the Clarks celebrate another family triumph. The other characters in the play are Sam III’s spunky girlfriend LaTonya Dinkins (Chaunesti W. Lyon) and Blue Williams Jr. (James Patrick Clanton).
Sherida McMullan gives a regal performance as Peggy Clark: prideful, arrogant, condescending, abrasive, unapologetically manipulative of her family and their friends. LaMark Wright is good as the mousy son who finally roars; and Chaunesti Lyon more than holds her own as the lovely LaTonya, an ignorant, oversexed, but career-minded “country girl” whom Peggy adopts as a protégé when she finds out that she and LaTonya share an obsession with the music of Blue Williams.
Byron Jennings is quite good at reproducing the Teddy Pendergrass-like sensual song stylings that make Blue catnip for both Peggy and LaTonya; Lester Hill is suitably low key as the long-suffering and hopelessly henpecked Samuel Clark Jr.; and Michael Lee is highly amusing as shiftless and immature Sam III, who finally trims his huge Afro and turns over a new leaf as a result of Peggy’s constant nagging.
LeDawna Akins is a scream as Peggy’s disapproving mother-in-law Tillie Clark, and James Clanton smoothly handles the dual roles of young Reuben the would-be trumpet player and Blue Williams Jr.
Although many of the portrayals in this community-theater production are far from polished, the passionate performances coaxed from the actors by long-time RLT artistic director Haskell Fitz-Simons capture the essence of these characters in conflict. By and large, each cast member hits the right emotional notes.
Set designer Roger Bridges’ impressive recreation of the posh interior of Clark home and other nearby environs, lighting designer Sonya Dowhaluk’s intimate illumination of the episodes this memory play, costume designer Vickie Olson’s striking 1970s and 1990s wardrobe for the cast, and song coach Diane Pettaway’s skill in helping to transform Byron Jennings into a convincing facsimile of a pop icon all help make Blue a convincing drama about a control freak who finally goes too far.
Raleigh Little Theatre presents Blue Wednesday-Saturday, Feb. 16-19 and 23-26, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 20 and 27, at 3 p.m. in RLT’s Cantey V. Sutton Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $14 Wednesday, $18 Thursday/Sunday, and $20 Friday-Saturday, except $12 Sunday for students and seniors. 919/821-3111. Note: Assistive listening devices are available for all show, and all shows are wheelchair accessible. Raleigh Little Theatre: http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/blue.htm [inactive 4/06].
Raleigh Little Theatre will present the North Carolina premiere of Blue, a critically acclaimed African-American play with book by Charles Randolph-Wright, music by Nona Hendryx, and lyrics by Hendryx and Randolph-Wright, Feb. 11-27 in its Cantey V. Sutton Theatre. RLT warns that Blue contains adult language.
"I first became aware of Blue last year during our play reading process,” recalls RLT artistic director Haskell Fitz-Simons. “The play, by South Carolina native and Duke graduate Charles Randolph-Wright, enjoyed a successful run at Washington’s Arena Stage before moving to its New York run (both starring Phylicia Rashad). This play with music has since enjoyed a number of productions in prestigious venues around the country.”
Fitz-Simons says, “I think the thing I liked best about the script straight away is the wonderful jazz score by Nona Hendryx, who has — among other things — collaborated with Patti LaBelle). The script is a memory play, and nothing stimulates memory more than music. The eponymous character, Blue, is a jazz singer who loomed large in the life of the leading lady, Peggy Clark. Peggy has carried a torch for the singer since her young womanhood when she was a super model for Ebony’s Fashion Faire. Blue exists for the most part in Peggy’s mind and crops up from time to time, serving as a sort of blues-singing, Greek chorus, commenting on the action with beautifully crafted songs by Ms. Hendryx.”
He adds, “The play starts with the narrating central character, Reuben Clark (played by LaMark Wright), aged 28, looking back on the life that brought him to his present situation. His life [and,] indeed, the lives of his entire family [have] been dominated by the towering presence of his exquisitely beautiful, somewhat obsessively driven mother, Peggy Clark (played by Sherida McMullan).
"Peggy, a top model during her youth, had married the wealthy owner of an African-American funeral-home conglomerate in South Carolina. When the reality of life in rural South Carolina set in,” Fitz-Simons explains, “Peggy [found] solace in extravagant shopping sprees in Atlanta and Charlotte ... and in the recorded music of her musical icon, Blue Williams (played and sung beautifully by Byron Jennings). She has become something of a snob with ‘control issues,’ trying her best to run the lives of her husband, Samuel Clark (Lester Hill), her 17-year-old son Sammy (Michael Lee) and her 12-year-old son Reuben (Patrick Clanton).”
Fitz-Simons adds, “Throw into the mix Samuel’s canny, crusty mother, Tillie Clark (played with great good humor by LeDawna Aikens), who is nobody’s fool and not at all amused by Peggy’s elitist machinations; and the chemistry gets pretty volatile.
"An unexpected wrinkle appears in the person of Sammy’s ‘country,’ wrong-side-of-the-tracks girlfriend LaTonya Dinkins (Chaunesti Lyon), who seems woefully out of place next to Peggy, until it comes out that she is also a Blue Williams fanatic!” says Fitz-Simons. “Peggy does an about-face as concerns LaTonya and adopts her as a project, shaping her in her own image. Suffice it to say that there are ghosts in the closet, betrayals, reconciliations, and forgiveness. This is a new sort of hybrid as plays go: a sort of ‘dramedy with music.’”
In addition to director Haskell Fitz-Simons, who doubles as sound designer for the show, the Blue production team includes set designer Roger Bridges, lighting designer Sonya Dowhaluk, costume designer Vickie Olson, and song coach Diane Pettaway.
Fitz-Simons says the set recreates the “dining room and living room of the elegant home of Samuel Clark in Kent, South Carolina, ... and environs”; the show’s lighting accents the fact that Blue is a memory play, and the play’s costumes range from “elegant stylings from the mid-1970s (Act One) [to] those from the mid 1990s (Act Two).”
Haskell Fitz-Simons adds, “Probably the greatest challenge [to the RLT cast and crew was] the task of integrating the beautiful songs into the action of the play. Where IS the actual singer? What era is he singing in? Also, there is a great deal of interesting manipulation of the linear timeline. Keeping the passage of time straight has been a very interesting part of the [rehearsal] process.”
Note: Raleigh Ensemble Players, Raleigh Little Theatre, and PlayMakers Repertory Company of Chapel Hill will celebrate Black History Month by offering an innovative ticket package for three special performances of shows by current African-American playwrights. The package includes tickets to Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus (REP and the Shaw University Theatre Program, Feb. 11th), Charles Randolph-Wright’s Blue (RLT, Feb. 20th), and Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman (PRC, March 17th), as well as post-play discussion sessions. The special package price of $40 for all three shows is a 30 percent savings over the combined ticket price, and is good only on the three Special Offer Dates indicated above.
Raleigh Little Theatre presents Blue Friday-Saturday, Feb. 11-12, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 13, at 3 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, Feb. 16-19 and 23-26, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 20 and 27, at 3 p.m. in RLT’s Cantey V. Sutton Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $14 Wednesday, $18 Thursday/Sunday, and $20 Friday-Saturday, except $12 Sunday for students and seniors. 919/821-3111. Note 1: Assistive listening devices are available for all show, and all shows are wheelchair accessible. Note 2: At the Feb. 13th Sunday matinee, there will be audio description for those with visual disabilities. Raleigh Little Theatre: http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/blue.htm [inactive 4/06].