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After the Afro-American Cultural Center moved to Uptown Charlotte and became the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, I wondered whether I'd ever review a show at the old Attic Theatre again. In my early years on the job, I might climb the stairs as many as three times each season. Nowadays, the old Afro-Am building functions as the Little Rock Community Development Center. As far as I know, Little Rock's portfolio still doesn’t include theatre, so it's fortunate for me that Jermaine Nakia Lee and the Johnson C. Smith University C.H.I.P. Project decided to stage the premiere of Lee's new A Walk in My Shoes at the Attic – especially since a workshop version of the musical had previously been presented on the JCSU campus in 2013.
Just walking up the flights of stairs to the Attic – and then, once inside the theater, walking down the steeply sloped orchestra section to the front row – brought back memories of stellar actors that once graced the Attic stage. The house was packed to near-capacity when I arrived, and it was instantly apparent, from the activity of the light booth to the functionality of the narrow seats, that Little Rock has kept the Attic in fine repair. But fine repair and state-of-the-art are not the same. There is no roof in sight looking up, only a fairly low ceiling, so there is no fly loft. Entrances must all come from backstage, since there are no wings, and it's obvious that the Attic wasn't conceived with musicals in mind. The trio led by musical director Kevin Staley was lined up against the right-hand wall of the stage, visible to audience and actors alike throughout the performance. Staley's other option, to camp upstage behind the Attic's curtain, would have required a video setup to cue the cast, with one or more monitors facing the stage. Reality presumably collided with that possibility and quashed it.
Yet, the budgetary constraints of the Lee/JCSU collaboration were still apparent from the moment the core members of the cast began to sing. To be heard above the band, all of them needed to be singing in the sweet spots of their range, so body mics wound up as actual necessities that the budget couldn't cover. Notwithstanding the artistic merits of Marius James’ freestanding mural, split and separated to opposite thirds of the stage, scenery was fairly rudimentary, usually rolled on stage by the crew and the players themselves. When the trouble-prone addict Maceo was hospitalized early in Act II, they didn’t dare wheel him on stage already in the bed, sparking some unintended laughter from the crowd as he carefully climbed on.
Played by newcomer Quinn Marques, Maceo personifies the population that JCSU wanted to address when they first approached Lee and sought his help in applying for a federal grant: substance abusers who engage in risky sexual encounters. Before he climbed into that hospital bed, various scenes of A Walk in My Shoes gave ample evidence of Maceo snorting, shooting up, and drinking to excess. Maceo says that he would like to be up-close and sexual with longtime buddy Bonnie, but the effects of various drugs seemed to be tamping down his libido when it came time to take action, which enabled Bonnie to keep pushing him away. Bonnie, portrayed by newcomer Tiffanie McCall, hasn't been straightforward with her friends, hiding the fact that she was born HIV-positive. Keeping her distance from Maceo was a responsible thing for Bonnie to do while she kept her HIV secret, but as the action unfolds, she learns another reason for maintaining restraint.
So it's the transvestite Ms. Kara, portrayed with queenly gusto by newcomer Tara Anderson, who wound up drawing Maceo into dangerous sexual activity. She's the member of the crew who is always flush with cash, earning it by running an escort service online and on her handy cell phone. After taking a call from Marques (an unseen baddie, not the actor), Kara gets a warning from Travis, the supervisor at the LGBT center, that she shouldn't be making assignations with this Marques. But divulging the fact that he was actually raped by Marques and his cronies would cost Travis his job, so he left that info out. As a result, Kara had no idea of what the full consequences would be when she cut Maceo into the action.
Completing the crew is Keon Sunkins as the local preacher's closeted son, O'Neal. His troubled relationship with his homophobic dad and mom, Bishop Rutherford and First Lady Shirley Rutherford, was the first of four tableaus in the opening title song, but there really wasn't any meaningful sequel until deep into Act II. So Lee, who wrote the book as well as the music and score, missed an opportunity to fully develop what could have been his most significant character. As Lee said in his genial curtain speech, this is a "long-ass" show, so audience members may give up on ever returning to the church – or wonder why O'Neal doesn't hang out with a secret boyfriend instead of refereeing Bonnie and Maceo's squabbles.
Fortunately, Lee has made some important progress as both a writer and as a composer. Dialogue between Maceo, Bonnie, Kara, and O'Neal is far more natural than Lee's previous musical, For the Love of Harlem, which introduced us to Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and other notables of the Harlem Renaissance. A former program director at the PowerHouse Project, where he counseled HIV-positive youth and other at-risk populations, Lee doesn't always resist the impulse to giftwrap teachable moments for us or to double-underline the fact that the four besties and Travis are an ongoing support group for each other. He's at his best when he keeps it real between the friends – and when his songs ushered us into his musical world. Too often, Lee gave in to his penchant for writing soul ballads in For the Love of Harlem. There is more variety in A Walk in My Shoes – jazz, hip-hop, R&B, and gospel all get their turn – and more consistent quality. "I Will Never Leave Your Side," closing Act I, was the only letdown.
Stage directing isn't Lee's forte, and this inexperienced cast might have sustained more compelling dramatic tension in between songs with more detailed, nuanced, and polished guidance. In casting his production, Lee clearly got what he was looking for from a vocal perspective. Anderson and Marques scorched their "Trouble" duet at the LGBT. With co-composer Tyrone Jefferson, Lee has written a cluster of memorable songs for his more peripheral characters. Shuffling around with a teeming shopping cart, Kyran McShaw as the homeless Mr. Jimmy teaches the young folk a different beat with "Jazz," scatting along the way. After serving mostly as comic relief with her irresistible cooking, Gail Ford (an oasis of splendor when I last wrote her up at the Attic in the 1997 edition of Bubbling Brown Sugar) gets to cut loose at Maseo's bedside with "Ms. Wynetta's Lullaby" before blushingly receiving some rusty romantic moves from Mr. Jimmy. Among the younger players, Elijah Ali stands out as Travis, as a singer and an actor – a good thing, since he was charged with bringing Lee's most moribund character to life.
When we finally return to the church, there's plenty to see and hear. Following up her rousing sermon as the church's First Lady Rutherford, Myrna J. Key-Parker struck up the most infectious song of the evening, "Wait Don"t Mean No." I finished worrying whether Key-Parker's bravura could be equaled, let alone topped, when the Bishop stood up to deliver his sermon, for Clifford Matthews, Jr., left no doubt. A gay senior pastor at the St. Luke's Missionary Baptist Church in real life, Matthews spits fire and stomps thunder as the Bishop, quoting ominous Scripture into his son's face after O'Neal has had the nerve to answer his father's altar call for all those in the congregation suffering from the "affliction" of homosexuality.
Although it's more compartmentalized than in most musicals I've seen, the dancing in A Walk in My Shoes was consistently topnotch. In addition to a trio of voguers, one of whom danced in high heels, there were two hip-hop artists to wow us. The Reliable Brothers, identical twins who were featured at the prestigious Breakin' Convention dance festival, danced to poetry by L'Monique King. Although they are identical twins, the Reliables didn't always dance identically, occasionally going their separate ways and occasionally partnering as they choreographed their own spots. The fascinating part was watching each of the Brothers as they expressed King's words with their bodies and gestures. There could be no doubt that Lee and King had plenty to say.