For dogged determination, no one in Nashville theater eclipses Shawn Whitsell. With limited financial resources, he has consistently mounted plays with his Destiny Theatre Experience and worked as producer/actor/director with other companies, while also co-founding the Shades of Black Theatre Showcase, helping to give voice to those striving on the local scene.
But it may be that Whitsell's strongest suit has yet to fully emerge: that of playwright. His Never Been Home, first performed last September, is currently being remounted, and whatever flaws exist in the script or the staging, it's an engrossing work that captures a modern African-American family in crisis.
The Andersons are well-heeled folks. They've had money and opportunity because paterfamilias John Jefferson Anderson Sr.—a strong-willed, demanding man prone to controversial excesses—made a name for himself in business and politics.
Now the patriarch is dead, and as his five children gather for the funeral, a long-brewing emotional storm awaits them. The catalyst is the arrival of eldest daughter Maxine (Mary McCallum), a successful New York lawyer with huge unattended personal issues, which come to the fore when eldest son John Jr. (Kamal Bolden) instigates a meeting to discuss family finances. Lurking in the wings is stoic matriarch Diane (Alicia Ridley), who harbors a welter of secrets about herself, her late husband and the children.
When Maxine cracks, a flood of accusations is unleashed, revealing dark episodes that touch all concerned, including incest, teen pregnancy, confused parentage and all manner of longstanding resentments, which upper-middle-class comfort and secure social status clearly can't begin to assuage.
Whitsell—who also directs and plays middle son Adrian—builds his script with canny plotting, reveal after reveal ringing with soap-opera-like intrigue but playing out with a more developed dramatic sensibility. A power-packed Act 1 ending deftly keeps theatergoers on edge, and Act 2 follows with a brave exploration of the truth that concludes with a poignant catharsis.
The staging here could be more precise and daring in its blocking, but Whitsell's involving tale keeps the evening moving apace regardless. He's also got a fine cast in place, all of whom emerged from the community theater scene and exhibit real seasoning. Bolden's explosive moments are riveting, Tamiko Robinson's pained impudence rings true, and Rashad Rayford once again delivers critical dialogue with subtlety and sensitivity. Ridley's focused performance—in a role well beyond her years—is filled with brooding understatement, like a powder keg whose explosion can never be predicted. It's very strong work. Christan Riley fills out the cast as loving Aunt Gina, who comes from Mississippi to attend the funeral, then assists in the difficult process of family healing.
Never Been Home is entertaining theater that manages to pack a serious wallop.
Over at Belmont University's Troutt Theater, Nashville Shakespeare Festival performs its winter production, Denice Hicks' imaginative adaptation of Richard the Third, which pretty much blows the lid off typical expectations. What is usually an infamously dour piece of endless betrayal and murder is duly transmogrified into a slice of early 20th century vaudeville, replete with tinkling piano accompaniment, groaning one-liners (rimshot!), arch physical comedy, a little tap-dancing and juggling, delightful costumes (including derbies, skimmers and top hats) and an energetic and versatile cast of 17 who play the shtick to the hilt and make it work throughout.
NSF newcomer Navada Shane Morgan is impishly good as the humpbacked, limping Richard, destroying every human life in his path on his way to the top of the British royal line. While the Bard's dialogue gets a face-lift from Hicks that reveals cheesy (and often mirthful) melodrama, we still get the complicated story of high-level politics, with Richard's snide asides inspiring the rest of the dramatis personae to their own level of wisecracking.
Instead of a serious soliloquy, Brenda Sparks' Cassandra-like Queen Margaret delivers a tough, minor-key blues. Meanwhile, Nan Gurley, as confused Queen Elizabeth, belts out Irving Berlin's "Show Business." Then Phil Perry's ill-fated Hastings enacts a nearly literal head-on-a-platter routine that is very funny indeed.
Others offering cleverly cartoonish work are Jessejames Locorriere, Nathan Lee, Tom Mason, R. Alex Murray, and Claire Syler. Some of the players double up and, in the case of John Silvestro, triple up on roles.
When we're not hearing old-timey musical chestnuts (e.g., "White Cliffs of Dover"), we're hearing the original score of musical director/pianist Tom McBryde, all of it music-hall-appropriate. The multitalented Mason also contributes Richard's comical, bravado-rich Act I ragtime closer, "The Big Time."
With its Palace Theatre setting, lively staging and broadly creative, tongue-in-cheek approach to the Bard, Hicks' Richard is more George M. Cohan than Kenneth Branagh—and that makes it a perfect tonic for these tough economic times. The show runs through Jan. 31.
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