Arena Stage's The Women of Brewster Place

The Women of Brewster Place is based on a novel from the 1980s by Gloria Naylor. Apparently this novel is much beloved. I have never even heard of it, so I came to the performance with no expectations or anything to compare it to. The material has been adapted by Tim Acito, who writes book, music, and lyrics. The musical takes place around 1975, in Brewster Place, the poor section of some American city. The plot follows the struggles of several African-American women who try to create better lives for themselves, their families, and their community.

Ultimately, this is a musical full of unrealized potential. To be a good, tight work of theatre, The Women of Brewster Place could use two or three more rewrites and workshops. The main problem is a plot that is too messy and unsure of how to place focus where it needs to be. It plays more like a series of vignettes than a cohesive story. The result is a musical that is frequently enjoyable but never touching.

The musical begins successfully, with a trio of women (Cheryl Alexander, Terry Burrell, and Eleasha Gamble as Sophie, Mavis, and Wanda) setting the scene. These women seem to be acting as narrators, or a Greek chorus, but they become underutilized and turn into agitators in the second act.

We are soon introduced to the rest of the cast, and therein begins the problem. Acito seems to love every single character, and wants to give each her moment to shine. This would be fine, except the moment to shine turns into moments to shine. For example, we meet Kiswana Browne (Monique L. Midgette) when she sings her solo number. This is soon followed by a scene and song with her mother (Terry Burrell) that is completely extraneous and told me nothing about the character that I hadn’t already figured out. A good third of this piece could be – and needs to be – cut.

The heart of this piece, and where the focus needs to be more carefully realized is Mattie, played with solidness and warmth by Tina Fabrique. Mattie is the mother-figure of the community, and it is through her eyes that we see how individual tragedies affect us all. She has ended up in Brewster place because she has spent all her money trying to keep her son Basil out of prison, only to have him run off and leave her all alone. Her story gets only cursory treatment, as the plot gets waylaid by other concerns.

The first act becomes about Lucielia (Shelley Thomas), a young woman with a daughter and an unreliable boyfriend. The second act brings in two new characters, lovers Tee (Suzzanne Douglas) and Lorraine (Harriett D. Foy). The second act feels most successful, mostly because Douglas and Foy are more convincing in their roles. Foy especially brings roundness and depth to her character. Thomas is far too generic in her acting to move you with her plight. By this I mean that she acts sadness or despair or annoyance, instead of fighting for specific needs brought about by her specific situation. But the second act also takes the focus off Mattie more than the first, making it seem like it belongs in a different musical. These acts also suffer by the fact that they end the exact same way -- with a death that the audience sees coming from miles away due to the foreshadowing that is laid on with a trowel.

Any other emotional punch this musical could have achieved is further denied do to some of the staging choices by director Molly Smith. Many of the songs are essentially monologues, and the characters deliver them to the audience, or to people who are on stage, but not present. This style is carried over into the scenes. Lines are frequently delivered to the audience, instead of to the other character. As a result, Sing, Billie, becomes the strongest moment of the whole evening, because it is the only song and scene in which the characters (Mattie and Etta Mae (the delightfully self-possessed Marva Hicks)) truly connect to each other.

This is perhaps coming off too harsh. If it seems that way, it is not because the musical is bad, but because, with more work, it could be quite good. The music ranges. Some of it is quite good; some I don’t even remember 24 hours later. The worst writing comes in the book scenes, which should be done away with all together. The piece is practically sung-through, why not commit to that fully?

The cast members without exception sing very well. The stage design (Anne Patterson) is excellent. City scenes are projected onto blank walls, making a simple set quite dynamic. Children and men are absent, being replaced by sound and silhouetted projections. This works well, as it creates a stronger sense of this community of women.

There is a better musical in here waiting to come out. I hope that Mr. Acito lets it.

3 stars
Through December 9th


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