On the House

The Black Rep's Home the Musical is a bit of a fixer-upper

Mar 24, 2004 at 4:00 am
For sale: one two-act Home, needs TLC. Location: Grandel Theatre. See an ensemble of talented actors assembled by the Black Rep for a showing. Treat them well -- it's a real fixer-upper and they've done their best to try and make it look nice.

Renovation project no. 1: the sound system. Set in the acoustically challenging Grandel, Home the Musical fails at the basic level of allowing the audience to hear the song lyrics. While veteran performers J. Samuel Davis and Rheaume Crenshaw are able to articulate their way out of the amplified Jell-O, the rest of the cast is overcome by the band. Perhaps one of the Black Rep's corporate sponsors can gift them with a better system and a sound designer who can conquer the Grandel. Until then, plan on missing a good portion of the lyrics.

Renovation project no. 2: the script. Samm-Art Williams uses two female narrators who introduce the story of Cephus Miles. They play various characters throughout his life -- teachers, lovers, aunts -- and also recite a number of Langston Hughes-like poetic passages about the beauty of the earth and the seductiveness of the city. Then there's a chorus that plays other bit parts and provides atmosphere. But at the core is the character and story of Cephus -- and it's too predictable. Cephus loses his beloved grandfather and uncle. He doubts God. He falls in love but she leaves him. He doubts God more. He gets jailed for refusing the draft. He goes to the city and loses himself in drink and poverty. He prays but doesn't believe God will answer him. A mysterious patron restores his grandfather's land to him, so he returns home (on Christmas Eve). There's a happy ending and he believes in God again. It's a nice but boring story, told in an often confusing collage of flashback scenes and poetic monologues.

Side projects related to the script: the language and the music. Although Home the Musical moves from the early 1960s to the late '90s, the music and dialogue often fail to provide an appropriate sense of character age and era. When Cephus is a boy, Williams puts the words "a fertile, pungent soil" in his mouth. Characters in a scene set in early 1970 use the phrase "24/7." The music is blandly pleasant but rarely provides clues to the year in which a particular scene is taking place.

Renovation project no. 3: the costumes, which add to the play's already confusing atmosphere. The stylistic choice to have each actor wear a base outfit and add specialty pieces (an army jacket, a scarf, etc.) is inconsistently employed, so it's often unclear whether a costume indicates a specific character. Having women in skirts and heels wearing fatigue jackets and pretending to be soldiers just looks silly. And why is attractive Cheryl Howard stuck in an ugly gray dress for all of Act One?

This Home does have some selling points. Davis -- an actor with compelling stage presence who spins stories effortlessly -- is always watchable. The church and courtship scenes are fun and full of energy, and the chorus swirls its way through some very lively dances. Cephus's story "How I Learned to Talk Indian" and Crenshaw's ballad "Fly Away" are show-stoppers. The most interesting bit of staging takes place during the song "Not What I Seem." Cephus has hit bottom, and as he sings of his despair, a sharp-dressed man dances smoothly in counterpoint under a streetlight on the opposite side of the stage. It evokes a sense of lost dreams, an echo of the former Cephus, which makes his current situation truly mournful.

The Black Rep's decision to take a risk with a new musical is commendable. Now they need to decide if this Home improvement project is worth further effort, or whether the property should be condemned.