The DC Black Theatre Festival, which runs through June 26, this year offers some 45 self-produced shows, most one time only. Organized annually by the DC Drama Department, a nonprofit educational theater company, the festival features performances in four categories: drama, deaf artists, family, and inspirational. I’ll be sampling, and reporting on, a few—but to fully appreciate the festival’s unique range of programming, go to the complete schedule online.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston’s beloved classic novel about a young woman’s quest for respect, has been adapted into a one-act musidrama called Somethin’ Like Eatonville—and on the evidence of the rough-edges, first-time-on-its-feet festival performance I saw, this show has the potential for greatness. The music by Tamara Wellons is as lush, lovely, and lively as any I’ve heard on the musical stage. Writer Nicole Morgan has compressed the stirring story of Hurston’s gutsy main character, Janie, into a smart, funny, and touching libretto that for an early iteration played with terrific momentum and emotional impact.
The circumstances of the performance were also noteworthy. Somethin’ Like Eatonville was co-directed by Nicole Morgan and Fred Michael Beam in two versions. The one I saw in the afternoon was performed in American Sign Language by actors who (with one exception) are deaf. Simultaneous voicing was provided by mic’ed hearing actors in the front row. The music and vocals were prerecorded, with the actors onstage simultaneously signing the lyrics. An evening performance was to be performed by a different cast, all hearing, with simultaneous ASL translation. Such parallelism in dual-language performance has got to be rare (I’ve never heard of it before). The fact that the material being performed was so promising made it all the more remarkable.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, first published in 1937, is set in Florida. It tells the story of young Janie Crawford’s emergence as an independent woman during her relationships with three men whom she marries. The first marriage, to a farmer, a much older man, is arranged by Janie’s grandmother, who tells her in Somethin’ Like Eatonville’s rousing first song to “Settle Down.” Janie is miserable because husband number one treats her like a mule. “Nobody told me I had to be this wonder woman doing it all,” Janie sings, in a song called “Nobody Told Me.” Then Janie happens to meet the man who would become her next husband, someone with big ambitions and a head for business. She remains his wife for twenty years. She is well provided for but feels stiffled by his control. Worse, he insults her appearance. Seeing the scene where she stands up to him being signed with huge vehement gestures made the passion in that confrontation seem to erupt onstage.
When husband two dies Janie momentarily mourns him, and in the funeral scene the chorus sings a cappella a gorgeous religious chorale called “Walk in the Light.” One day a younger man drops by. They fall in love and marry. He treats her with respect; what she says matters to him. They live an idyllic life together in the Everglades (“the muck”) until suddenly a massive storm hits. He’s bitten by a rabid dog and becomes deranged. In his demented rage he aims a pistol at her; in self-defense she fires first with a shotgun and kills him. It’s a tragic ending, but Janie comes through it all with her head held high and her heart full of hope. In Somethin’ Like Eatonville she has a touching speech in which she says, “Love is like the sea, and the only shape it takes is the shore it meets. And it’s different for every shore.” Watching the actor playing Janie sign multiple waves meeting multiple shores brought the poetry to life with breathtaking beauty.
I want to follow this show as it develops. I would not be surprised to someday see its name in lights.
Running Time: About 70 minutes, with no intermission.
Somethin’ Like Eatonvile played two shows only on June 22, 2014 at the Andrew Foster Auditorium at Gallaudet University. For more shows in this year’s Black Theatre Festival go to the complete schedule online.