The plight of urban youth took a contemporary turn in the University Of Maryland School Of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies’ opening night revival of the 1970s Broadway hit, The Me Nobody Knows. Originally conceived as a personal narrative written by poor, black kids living in Harlem, Co-Directors Alvin Mayes and Scot Reese have fashioned an optimistic version of this Tony Award-nominated, Obie Award-winning show with a multicultural ensemble who ponder some of the same social questions we faced back then and give us food for thought as to how far we’ve really come.
The Me Nobody Knows began as a writing project under the tutelage of several teachers in the black public schools of Harlem. Kids ranging in age from 12 to 18 were asked to write their thoughts and feelings about “four dimensions” of life as a means to harness and positively unleash the frustrations of living in the inner city: “How I see Myself”; “How I See the World; “The World Outside” ; and “The Things I Can’t See or Touch.” What resulted turned into a book, The Me Nobody Knows: From the Ghetto written in 1969. The power and the impact of these authentic voices spawned an off-Broadway show followed by Broadway in 1970 and on to rapt audiences around the world. There’s something about innocence and authenticity that yearns to be told and to be heard. The Me Nobody Knows has spanned continents playing in theaters as far as Tel Aviv, Paris, London, Hamburg, and Johannesburg with its timeless message.
Essentially a stream of consciousness about life and what it means to be young and impoverished, this plotless musical is rich in delving deep below the surface. It reveals the disappointment, the neglect and quest for survival in the face of confusion and the temptations of the street while holding tightly to the hopes, the dreams, and optimism for what one believes one can be. The Me Nobody Knows is a musical tribute to hope in the face of despair and leaves you with a sense that life can be good no matter what—as long as you remain true to yourself. It’s the energy and the vibrancy you bring that make all the difference and the talented cast of The Me Nobody Knows gives their all to show us exactly what that looks like.
The setting for the show is the present and we are anchored in the moment by an absolutely splendid set design by UMD grad student April Joy Tritchler. It captures the texture and tone of the inner city projects with a concrete jungle look carved from floating brick walls and verboten iron grates complete with basketball hoop. Projection Designer, Hannah Marsh, further captures the moment marking scene changes with multi-media words and images onto the backdrop. Costumes by Robert Croghan are colorful street threads with skinny jeans, plaid shirts, rolled up pants legs and funny-looking hats.
Under the Musical Direction of L. Richard Sparks, the multi-talented ensemble of actors provides all of the instrumental accompaniment themselves. Guitar, electric piano and the sax tell the story in song to go along with strong vocals. Although the instrumentals were not acoustically strong, you can’t help appreciating and applauding this cast’s ability to not only act and sing but also play the musical instruments. There was no taped piped-in music. Opening night jitters probably made for some of the off-key singing and many of the songs were a cappella, a challenge to perfect pitch.
There are some twenty tunes in The Me Nobody Knows to showcase the talent of this wonderful cast. In the first act: “Dream Babies”, “Light Sings”, “This World”, “Numbers”, “What Happens to Life”, “Take Hold the Crutch”, “Flying Milk and Runaway Plates”, “I Love What the Girls Have”, “How I Feel”, “If I Had a Million Dollars”.
“This World” and “Light Sings” were hits later made famous by the Staples Singers and the 5th Dimension. Melba, played by Kristen El Yaouti opens the act with a belted-out quality to her rendition of “Dream Babies”. The entire company (Rebecca Mount, Chloe Adler, Noelle Roy, Chioma Dunkley, Kristin El Yaouti, Tyasia Velines, Tiziano D’Affuso, Tendo Nsubuga, Noah Israel, Avery Collins, Christopher Lane, and Sam Elmore) sing to “Numbers,” “Take Hold the Crutch,” and “If I Had a Million Dollars.”
In the second act, ten effervescent songs capture the emotional movement of the ghetto, the drugs and crime, and the “Sounds” of city life: “Fugue for Four Girls”, “Rejoice”, “Sounds”, “The Tree”, “”Jail-Life Walk”, “Something Beautiful”, “Black”, “The White Horse”, “War Babies,” and “Let Me Come In”.
What is truly amazing about this production is that, other than co-direction and musical direction, undergraduate and graduate students created this entire production. Not only the actors but also the Stage Manager and Research Dramaturg ( Cindy King), the Projection Designer (Hannah Marsh), Lighting Designer (Brittany Shemuga), Assistant Choreographer (Julia Smith), Scenic Designer (April Joy Tritchler), Assistant Musical Direction (Samy Selim), and a cast of student understudies did a fine job.
The authenticity of young people, their unbridled energy, hopeful dynamism and innocent expectancy for the future are what give The Me Nobody Knows its lasting significance. Youth will always ponder these answers to life’s questions and The Me Nobody Knows provokes you to think about just how far we have come whether its 1970 or 2014.
However, as a child of the 60s myself, I couldn’t help but react to a cast of 12 actors, 5 of whom were African Americas and the rest white performing an originally black-themed musical. To hear the ensemble unison sing “Black,” a riveting and central-themed lament with projected images of Ferguson, about the lack of dignity given the black man today, my reaction to white kids singing out in emotional intensity about these feelings gave me a sense of implausibility. I bristled at the sight. But did the director purposely cast a majority white show around themes from black life in Harlem to provoke us to think about where we have come with making social progress? Or was it to show us that we are really not in a post-racial society and the implausible image of white kids singing black themes prove it? Can we really hear folk guitar playing in the ghetto? Are white kids really concerned about the welfare system living in Harlem? The original cast of the Broadway show had 12 actors, 8 of whom were African Americans. Does a majority white cast today raise questions about how multi-cultural we have become or truly not become? It did for me.
You’ll have to go see The Me Nobody Knows yourself to answer these questions and to see what the emotions are telling you about authenticity, innocence, the present moment and hope for the future.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission
The Me Nobody Knows plays through October 17, 2014 at University Of Maryland School Of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies at the Kay Theatre at the Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Maryland College Park – University of Maryland Stadium Drive, in College Park, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.