Review: ‘Vivian’s Music 1969’ at The Essential Theatre

It was 50 years ago. Lost deep in the pages of the June 26, 1969 edition of The New York Times was this, “Firebombings, rock throwing and rifle shots marked a third straight night of racial violence tonight in this city’s predominantly Negro area.” The city in question was Omaha, Nebraska, a place usually far from the gaze of mainstream media.

Kailah S. King in ‘Vivian’s Music 1969.’ Photo by Sharon Farmer, sfphotoworks.

What may have led up to the unrest in Omaha is the inspiration for the distinctive jazz infused “call-and-response” of Vivian’s Music 1969 by playwright Monica Bauer at DC’s The Essential Theatre. Playwright Bauer added a key subtitle to her script, A Fantasia for Two Actors.

A native of Omaha, Bauer is successful in the challenge she set for herself of developing an engaging, absorbing memoir-like “how might it have happened” script based upon the harrowing history from 50 years ago. A history so invisible outside of Omaha that even the likes of Wiki for its June 1969 entry does not currently list it with the other events of that month. One has to know it happened to find it in a search. What happened in Omaha? A 14-year-old Black girl named Vivian Strong was shot and killed by a white police officer. The police officer shot her through the back of the head. The incident sparked race conflicts in Omaha, a Midwestern city with a history of racial tension. 

Vivian’s Music 1969 features two actors, Kailah S. King and Russell Jordan, portraying a number of Black and white characters. The central characters are the teen Vivian and Luigi a middle-aged jazz drummer who returned to Omaha from New York after the death of his mother. He is about to re-open the Dreamland Ballroom, a club his mother owned, which has seen better days. Other characters range from Luigi’s mother to George, an older Polish accordion player, to George’s wife Helen, a very suspicious woman. Also represented are Vivian Strong’s mother, an older sister Earlene, and Vivian’s crush, Duane, a teenage member of the local Black Panther party.

Directed by Glory Kadigan, Vivian’s Music 1969 is a crisp production, full of teachable moments. It is more than alternating monologues in a stand-and-delivery method by two actors. There is a musical dynamic to it. Few scenes feel static under Kadigan’s leadership, and King and Jordan provide vivid contrasts in the various characters they portray or speak about.

As the young teen Vivian Strong, King is a quiet captivating force. King portrays Vivian initially as full of exuberant youthful innocence. She is abuzz with energy and tics: nervous hand gestures, vibrant dance movements, and rapid soft-spoken voice inflections. She is also a keen observer as she narrates her family’s most intimate circumstances whether about her pregnant older sister Earlene or her boy-crush Duane. (King also portrays both). “I see things other people don’t see on account of I can be anyplace, and nobody sees me. It’s my talent. Helps me figure out what’s what pretty quick.” 

Over time, Vivian begins to learn difficult life lessons from her mother who speaks about a lynching in the family’s past. Her boyfriend Duane begins to be less appealing. “Nothin’ more borin’ than a sixteen-year-old black boy talkin’ revolution,” she says derisively. Then Vivian meets Luigi and becomes a regular visitor listening to jazz at Dreamland. For Vivian, jazz is way different from the Motown and Church music she knows. It brings a wider world to her life.

Russell Jordan in ‘Vivian’s Music 1969.’ Photo by Sharon Farmer, sfphotoworks.

Russell Jordan as Luigi is a compellingly, “tell-it-like-it-is” presence. He is a smooth storyteller. A man who has lived a life using his wits and his drumming talents to survive white contempt. His opening line lets the audience know he is no push-over as he speaks with a vinegary tone about the inconvenience of his Momma passing. He also knows well that “Riots had been eatin’ up black neighborhoods.” Luigi also represents the older generation viewpoint when in conversation with the teen Duane who he called a “youngblood.”

Luigi speaks directly to the audience about his resilience. He has survived through finessing, of speaking not total truth, and telling white folk what they want to hear. He is also a man who could consider using a baseball bat on a white man named George. A white man who had once provided employment to Luigi. A white man who amazed Luigi when he played a jazz infused accordion before a Black audience in a session at Dreamland. And the same white man whose wife pummels Luigi with “You sounded different over the phone.”

The creative team adds immensely to the production’s overall engagement. There is a jazz tempo to Vivian’s Music 1969. Andy Evan Cohen’s fine sound design includes Ella Fitzgerald’s “Satin Doll,” an instrumental version of Earl Garner’s “Misty,” and multiple musical references to the Dave Brubeck Quintet’s mega-hit “Take Five.”

Kailah S. King and Russell Jordan in ‘Vivian’s Music 1969.’ Photo by Sharon Farmer, sfphotoworks.

Mood is also well represented in the simple lighting design. There are often bright pastels for Vivian’s time in the spotlight and more moody hues for Luigi. The lighting design by Benjamin Ehrenreich adds power when figures freeze into shaded silhouettes. 

Playwright Bauer has crafted a haunting, poignant drama, infused with moments of genuine humor and musical energy. The production penetrates as Bauer uses down-to-earth language and primarily believable situations. There is convincing anger and urgency as the play builds to its conclusion. 

Yet, in its last moments, at least to me, the production loses energy and verve. It becomes distantly elegiac posing questions to ponder deeply as Brubeck music plays in the background.   

However, Vivian’s Music 1969: A Fantasia for Two Actors is completely worth our close attention. It tackles race issues. It is about the human condition during a time and place of troubles. It is a production that demands discussion after a performance. 

Running time: About eighty-five minutes with no intermission

Vivian’s Music 1969 plays through July 28, 2019 at Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Place SE, Washington, DC.  For tickets call 800-838-3006 or go online.