Review: Eclipse Theatre’s “A Song for Coretta”

The Way We Live Now: Promise and Disillusionment in Pearl Cleage’s “A Song for Coretta”

The cast of Pearl Cleage's 'A Song for Coretta', now being presented by Chicago's Eclipse Theatre Company

Eclipse Theatre Company returns to Pearl Cleage’s work with A Song for Coretta, after successfully featuring her as a playwright, novelist, and poet throughout their 2007 season. Eclipse’s 2007 production of her first play, Blues for an Alabama Sky, won several Jeff Awards, plus a Ruby Dee Award from the Black Theatre Alliance for the actress TayLar.. (who is presently playing the character of Helen in this production).

All the women in A Song for Coretta come to honor and memorialize Coretta Scott King on the rainy evening of her funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church. But what can they do with Coretta’s memory, or memory of the Black Civil Rights era, in the face of the dire challenges that eviscerate their community today? Cleage strives to regenerate the meaningfulness of that memory in the presence of generational divisions, between those for whom the Civil Rights struggle is still within living memory and those for whom it either lives only as a stirring image of African American unity, or does not live at all, since its limited benefits are no match against today’s corrosive injustices.

A Song for Coretta TayLar is pitch-perfect as the stalwart, churchgoing Helen, the only mourner present who has actually met Coretta Scott King; Niccole Thurman’s Zora conveys an earnest college student, covering the funeral for NPR, who is completely unconscious of her own naïveté; Kelly Owens’ Mona Lisa, a resourceful, bohemian Katrina survivor, embodies the kind of soulfulness that truly suggests magic; Kristy Johnson’s Keisha is by turns fiery, obstinate, arrogant, and vulnerably lost; Ebony Wimb’s Gwen comes across as stiff, even for an Iraq War veteran, yet she maintains the power to convey Gwen’s trauma simply with her eyes.

No one can deny the gifts or intentionality of the cast. Still, there is only so much that talent and stagecraft can bring to an incomplete work. The trouble is that they are trying to do so much with so little—an interesting situation, since it stands in direct relation to the dilemmas faced by the characters.

As badly as we need a play like this, Cleage may be trying to pack too much into one act. The result is a severely abridged overview of the African American generation gap, plus gangsta culture, plus Katrina, plus the Iraq war. Sadly, this gives the play a “movie of the week” quality. Characters are introduced as emblems of issues, not in-depth characters in their own right, so the conflicts between them are superficially addressed, as are the issues they are supposed to represent. There are humorous as well as riveting moments, but nothing that comes close to the knowing wit and complex insight with which Cleage has regaled readers and audiences in the past.

Songs-for-Coretta-3 Part of the problem lies in how the Black Civil Rights era is remembered in the play. Much as we may love Helen–with her church lady demeanor, her tailored dress, her tightly coiffed helmet of gray hair, and her outrage over the current generation’s insolent sloppiness, ignorance, and apathy–her representation of that era belies all the dangers of perceiving it through rose-colored glasses. If Helen was a child during the Montgomery bus boycott, then surely she grew into adulthood during the 60s and 70s, during the rise of the Black Power movement, the assassinations of Dr. King, Malcolm X, JFK, and Robert Kennedy; during the equally devastating crisis of the Vietnam War. There is nothing halcyon about Helen’s past and therefore no real reason to have her only portray that past beatifically to Zora.

Likewise, Keisha’s role in the play is also troublesome. She is supposed to be emblematic of the unrealized promise of the struggle for civil rights. While war metaphors are linked, and rather stiltedly, through an exchange between Mona Lisa and Gwen over Katrina and Iraq, there is hardly any acknowledgement in the play of the gang war conditions that have ravished Keisha’s life of education, opportunity, or a sense of history. A few of her lines just barely suggest it: “Old people are always talking about somebody died for us. Well people die all the time nowadays, in case you hadn’t noticed, and it don’t even matter what for—they still just as dead.” This is why her decision to forego abortion is no more comforting than the song–“This Little Light of Mine”–the women sing together at the end. Both seem like band-aids on interminable problems.

One can only hope that A Song for Coretta is an embryo for future work. We sorely need playwrights like Pearl Cleage, who will question the value of freedom, especially if it only means being free to carry out the state’s imperialistic adventures. Indeed, as there are outlier studies which show that schools are more racially segregated now than during Jim Crow, then in the year 2009, in every way that truly matters, we may be back to square one.

Rating: ««

A Song For Coretta by Pearl Cleage
Buy Tickets
A Midwest Premiere
Directed by ensemble member Sarah Moeller
June 11 – July 26, 2009
at The Greenhouse Theater
2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Chicago
Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8:30pm
Sundays at 3:30pm

Video footage of A Song for Coretta:   Video 1 and Video 2

Songforcoretta-old

A Song For Coretta by Pearl Cleage
Buy Tickets
A Midwest Premiere
Directed by ensemble member Sarah Moeller
June 11 – July 26, 2009
at The Greenhouse Theater
2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Chicago
Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8:30pm
Sundays at 3:30pm

Inspired by the long line of mourners who came by Ebenezer Baptist Church to pay their respects to Mrs. Coretta Scott King, A Song for Coretta introduces five fictional African-American women, aged 17 to 57, waiting in the rain to say their final good-byes. Cleage shows the impact that Mrs. King had on the lives of these women, and the connections that they build with one another through her memory and legacy. Eclipse is proud to present the Midwest Premiere of Ms. Cleage’s latest work

One Response

  1. […] Performance (review ★★★★) Kristy Johnson: A Song for Coretta -  Eclipse Theatre  (review ★★) Mary Redmon:  The Analytical Engine  – Circle Theatre  (review […]

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