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Suffering, persistence, and indomitable creativity are the threads that Russell L. Goings has used to weave The Children of Children Keep Coming, an incantatory and poetic account of the African-American journey. Quentin Talley, the artistic director of OnQ Productions, has adapted and directed Goings' "Epic GriotSong" for the stage, adding chants, work songs, blues, jazz, gospel, dance, hand clapping, foot stomping, ceremonial movement, and a cast of characters who all moonlight as members of a Greek-style chorus. The drawings by Romare Bearden that appear in the hardcover book are incorporated into Jeremy Cartee's video design, losing a little of their impact in the transition from the page to the Duke Energy Theater at Spirit Square, but quotes from Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Adam Clayton Powell, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are sprinkled into the script to take up the slack. With varying degrees of success in the singing impersonations, we also had cameos from Ma Rainey, Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, and Sarah Vaughan.
Theatrical history isn't littered with successful adaptations of epic poetry, so the task that Talley has undertaken would be difficult even if Goings' poem came equipped with affecting character development and a graceful narrative arc. Aside from a generic Grandmother and Grandfather, none of the characters actually converse, and after we've been immersed in the slavery experience, the road – or train – to freedom is more of a cyclonic swirl than a straight or winding path. We go back and forth to various historical landmarks. Reaching Rosa Parks is no guarantee that we won't be doubling back abruptly to revisit the roots of jazz or even the Civil War – or that we won't return to Rosa afterwards, still refusing to move to the back of the bus.
Talley gives a remarkable, evangelistic performance as our Narrator, but his work directing his fellow actors – and extra chorus members from the West Mecklenburg High School Drama – struck me as his most astonishing feat. Every one of the actors has numerous quick lines that don't really respond to the line just spoken. Most of the lines throughout the 110-minute show simply follow a cue line. Unless we see an actor moving toward a spot on the stage – or an actress making an onstage costume change while the Narrator is speaking about her character – we usually don't know who will speak next. That means we need to amp up our concentration level as The Children of Children careens unpredictably from one speaker to another and from one historical subject to another. The core cast of eight performers face an even more daunting task: keeping the ping-pong of the choreopoem format moving along briskly while executing the intricate patterns of the ensemble's physical movement.
Even when you're delivering your line on cue, one further level of concentration often comes into play. From his spot upstage, Talley might be saying the same line slightly ahead or after you. Or the chorus may be saying something else in unison altogether. Remarkably, this rapid-fire choral presentation only sputtered occasionally – and then only slightly – as this unique show sustained its impressive momentum. Helping to maintain order, Talley has strewn three mobile reading stands across the upstage. These stands not only help him to overlap without memorizing all those additional lines and cues, it helps with the daunting multitasking he must pull off as star and director of a fairly massive production.
We can also view this setup as an intermediate stage in the development of this OnQ property. When the company unveiled the new script, first at Johnson C. Smith University in 2012 and in 2013 at Duke Energy Theater, it was as a reading stage production. Now with the entire chorus virtually off-book – and one glaring technical shortcoming – we can categorize the 2016 edition as a workshop production. Talley may have been partially aware of the technical gap still remaining in this project, since the program booklet still doesn't list a lighting designer. Amid all of his multitasking (and the absence of an assistant director to be his eyes when he's onstage), Talley has missed how sorely a lighting designer is needed. Time after time when he was declaiming from his spot behind the central reading stand, a thick, disconcerting bar of shadow covered him from head to toe, separating him from the light surrounding him.
Yet the energy continued to pour out from him, largely because the pace and the gusto of his cast bounced the energy right back to him. All of the major singing voices are new to this remount. Shar Marlin has become OnQ's go-to vocalist over the past two years, portraying Bessie Smith on multiple occasions, so it figures that she would get the nod when it came time to trot out Ma Rainey, Mahalia, and Lawdy Miss Clawdy. Andrea Michele, on the other hand, has only appeared on my radar previously as the tomboyish lead in Pauline Cleage's Flyin' West when Davidson Community Players produced it nearly two years ago. Michele's singing voice as Evalina turns out to be very fine. Kenya Templeton was even more impressive in the more central role of Calli of the Valley, and she sang purely and sweetly as Marian Anderson, though she missed the famed contralto's distinctive timbre by a wide margin. Most memorable was how Templeton's scat singing Ella-vated the bebop segment and made it a celebratory highlight.
The familiarity of the recorded legacy put Omar El-Amin on shaky ground when we reached MLK, but the efforts at elongating his syllables did not obliterate the goodwill El-Amin had built up in his evocations of Douglass, all of those seeming to come from the heights of Sinai or Rushmore. Few members of most audiences are familiar with the barking Caribbean patois of Marcus Garvey, Jr., so Shiduan Campbell wasn't saddled with the objective of duplicating the notorious revolutionary in his Charlotte debut. There was also some promising versatility in his more genial stints as Grandfather and Banjo Pete, though the latter role didn't come equipped with either an instrument or a vocal solo. Playing opposite Campbell as Grandmother, Soumayah Consuela Nanji also didn't have a vocal solo in her debut, and she frankly mystified me a little. She was a fine Grandma and Rosa Parks at first blush, but between her two stints as Rosa, she was nearly inaudible when called upon to address us from the upstage platform. The ensuing rendezvous with Rosa was equally underpowered, as if she had lost her voice in the middle of the performance.
Yet, Nanji's vitality was undimmed when she danced with Campbell each time the grandfolk grew frisky. I wouldn't be surprised if Talley had his eye on her for choreographic chores in future OnQ presentations, including the full production of The Children of Children. Another thing to think about as this project enters its next step, besides establishing a more linear scenario, is being more informative about the cavalcade of notables mentioned during the course of the evening. They enrich the experience for the initiated, but they're likely to be nothing more than dropped names for youngsters or people who may be dipping into the sea of African-American culture for the first time.
The hardcover edition of Goings' epic is followed by a 38-page glossary, a useful tool if you've never heard of Ben Webster, Claude McKay, or James Meredith before. I'm hopeful that Talley's stage version, so rich in the music and the essence of the African-American experience, will evolve into something more than a handsome gateway to the book on sale in the lobby. Already the living performance is showing the potential of transcending the poem.
The Children of Children Keep Coming continues through Saturday, February 6. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.