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We Were There: Marley the Musical

Broadway Black

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Attending Marley at Baltimore’s Center Stage was truly a blessing. These words are meant literally, because the music and the performances are soul stirring. Even before one enters the theatre itself, you are transported to Jamaica. Sand covers the lobby floor and a live DJ spins reggae tunes. The bar serves a specially concocted rum punch and there is someone walking through the dancing crowd hawking Marley t-shirts. You may not realize it until the actual performance itself, but some of the colorfully dressed men and women dancing and enjoying themselves in the theatre lobby are actually cast members.

Soon you are ushered to your seat and the play begins. Marley covers four tumultuous years in the life of Jamaican icon Bob Marley, from the eve of the assassination attempt on his life during the political unrest in Jamaica to his triumphant return to foster peace and unity. It is during this time that Marley appears to truly find himself and his place in the world, while simultaneously acknowledging his responsibility to his family and his people. One learns a lot about Marley the man, not just the reggae superstar.

And, of course, there is the music. The music of Jamaica, the music of healing, the music of liberation. In fact, the middle of the stage is shaped like a vinyl record that actually revolves, recognizing the importance that music played in Marley’s life. Marley is well written by Center Stage Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah, especially in the way that he weaves Marley’s songs into the action and dialogue on stage. The music is seamlessly integrated and leaves the audience with a better understanding of the lyrics to which we have sung along for decades. There is audience participation throughout the performance. Center Stage adroitly sells “Dance Seats” that allows audience members to get on their feet and dance when the spirit moves them, without being a disruption to other theatregoers. The cast winds itself through the aisles during musical numbers, encouraging interaction. By the end of the performance, you are on your feet, not just to applaud, but also to celebrate. It is inevitable.

Leading the cast as Bob Marley is Mitchell Brunings, who is new to the theater world. He could not have found a better piece with which to debut, however, because when you close your eyes and listen to Brunings sing, he is Marley in both sound and feeling. When Broadway Black first covered Marley here, we included a clip to Brunings’ audition for the Dutch version of The Voice, in which he sang Marley’s Redemption Song. It was that performance that led Kwei-Armah to hop on a plane and determine that Brunings was the right person for the role. Brunings receives much support, both on-stage and off-, from his more theatre-experienced cast members, such as Saycon Sengbloh, who plays Bob’s wife Rita Marley beautifully. For example, there is a beautiful mashup of two of Marley’s songs (no spoilers!) sung as a duet between Brunings & Sengbloh that is absolutely breathtaking.

Broadway Black was privileged to attend the Meet the Cast conversation immediately following the performance on May 15, in which 22 of the cast members sat on stage and discussed the importance of the musical, the man, and the moment. It was not lost on the cast that they were singing Marley’s songs about justice and equality in the middle of the #BaltimoreUprising, the protest movement in response to the death of Freddie Gray, a Black Baltimorean who was fatally injured while in police custody. In fact, the cast shared that rehearsal time was lost because of the nightly curfew imposed by the city as a result of the protests. The cast said that they could literally hear the protests outside the theater doors and, as we covered here, they felt compelled to participate by staging a free outdoor concert at the epicenter of the Baltimore protests. Several of the Marley cast members are Jamaican, and some even lived in Jamaican during the time of civil unrest for which Bob Marley was a healing salve. It was moving to hear them tell how important it was that they were able to perform this piece now, and how they felt that director and writer Kwei-Armah got it right.

Marley runs through June 14 at Baltimore’s Center Stage and should not be missed. After you attend, let us know what you thought!

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Cast List

Jessica Frances Dukes to Lead the Cast of By The Way, Meet Vera Stark

Drew Shade

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Jessica Frances Dukes Photo via Signature Theatre

Acting powerhouse Jessica Frances Dukes, who recently slayed Alisha Harris’ Is God Is Off-Broadway, has been tapped as the title role of Lynn Nottage‘s By The Way, Meet Vera Stark at The Signature Theatre. Directed by Kamilah Forbes the revival production runs January 29, 2019, through March 3 with a February 19 opening night.

You may remember the Off-Broadway premiere of this show at Second Stage Theater in 2011 as it starred Sanaa Lathan.

It’s the Golden Age of Hollywood, and aspiring starlet Vera Stark works as a maid to Gloria Mitchell, an aging star grasping at her fading career. Worlds collide when Vera lands a trailblazing role in an antebellum epic starring…her boss. While Vera’s portrayal of a slave turns out to be groundbreaking, decades later scholars and film buffs still grapple with the actress’ legacy in Hollywood and the impact that race had on her controversial career. Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage’s fast-paced, sly satire, directed by Kamilah Forbes, will take you on a seventy-year journey through Vera’s life and the cultural climate that originally shaped her and continues today.

The cast also features Jenni Barber as Gloria, Manoel Felciano as Max/Peter, Warner Miller as Leroy/Herb, Carra Patterson as Anna Mae/Afua, Heather Alicia Simms as Lottie/Carmen, and David Turner as Brad/Slavick.

The creative team includes of Clint Ramos (scenic design), Dede M. Ayite (costume design), Matt Frey (lighting design), Mikaal Sulaiman (sound design), Katherine Freer (projection design) and Daniel Kluger (composition).

 

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Events and Happenings

Billy Porter Will Star In His New Play Remember To Live At Primary Stages

Drew Shade

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Billy Porter Pose(FX) promo photo

The Off-Broadway theatre company, Primary Stages, announced their 35th Anniversary season. Launching the lineup includes a new play by Tony Award-winning & Golden Globe-nominated actor Billy Porter entitled Remember To Live. That’s correct; The Pose(FX) star is a playwright. Beginning performances October 29th, Porter will also be starring in the piece.

Billy Porter draped at the Golden Globes Photo via @theebillyporter IG

Back in 2014 Porter’s While I Yet Live debuted at Primary Stages under the direction of Sheryl Kaller, who will also direct this future production set to premiere at the Cherry Lane Theatre.

Remember to Live is told from the perspective of an African-American gay filmmaker. The play centers on the stories of five gay men who all lived through the AIDS crisis and are now grappling with sex, intimacy, redemption, and love all with the indifference the current political climate.

Performances run October 29 through December 22. Additional casting to be announced at a later date.

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