A Song for Coretta at Vintage Theatre
By Lisa Bornstein
Playwright Pearl Cleage has the rare talent of writing historical plays that still feel personally relevant, with vivid fictional characters. Hers was a familiar name over the years at Shadow Theatre Company, so it’s fitting that Vintage Theatre is continuing the tradition by presenting her work in the space both companies have called home.
“A Song for Coretta” is, artfully, a play about the influence and the meaning of Coretta Scott King, without feeling the need to dwell in the details of her life story (often a recipe for a deadly dull bio-play).
The play, running through May 4, takes place on the afternoon of King’s viewing at Ebenezer Baptist Church in 2006. Over the course of the play, five women encounter one another while waiting in the rain to enter the church. Through them, we see a microcosm of African-American women stretching from the Civil Rights era to today.
There’s Helen Richards, played with elegance by Lisa Young, a dignified matron who recalls being a child and meeting King during the Montgomery bus boycott. She is a vivid, fully embodied character, triumphant in the memory of her first ride in the front of a bus, and blisteringly dismissive of Keisha (Ilasiea Gray), a flippant, fast-talking high school student who embodies for Helen where African-American culture – and, for that matter, all American culture – has degraded. Gray is particularly effective with her dissolute air and twangy slang, all eye rolls and gum chomps as she maintains that she does not owe obeisance to any generation.
The women come together through Zora, a shockingly naïve college student who, in the play’s falsest note, is covering the funeral “on spec” for NPR (because that’s something that NPR would throw to a college kid). Played by Davida A. Terrell, she is young and eager, but a little clueless.
The group is rounded out by a free-wheeling artist and a tight-lipped soldier. Josephine Lemon-Lett plays Mona Lisa Martin, a Katrina survivor with a wry, plainspoken, and accepting nature. ShaShauna Dàzhǎnhóngtú Staton plays the soldier, so taut she seems ready to pounce and bristling with anxious energy. The two play off one another in a somewhat predictable climax that is nicely staged by director Pat Payne.
Cleage’s play is preceded by an unnecessary one-act called “Letters,” which comprises letters from Martin Luther King to his wife. It’s a fairly stilted presentation, with one actor in a prison cell stage left and the other in a living room stage right. Here, Young plays opposite Andre D. Hickman, and there is little sense of chemistry or power connecting the two actors or their words.