Ingenious. Shakespeare’s venerable, often un-provocatively produced The Tempest has been reconstructed into theater with an invigorating musical arc and an awakening narrative bite. It has been reconceived to become a provocative play that sings–entitled Stormy Weather.
Produced by DC’s much-admired IN Series (now under the artistic leadership of Timothy Nelson), Stormy Weather lives up to its musical moniker as it develops a fresh approach to respond to the lyric, “just can’t get my poor self together.” How? With a fine cabaret-like evening of words, beats, and song moved forward with a bluesy rhythm.
Stormy Weather is a revelatory original theatrical work written by local playwright Sybil Williams. As melded together with a narrative by Williams and an arc of Billie Holiday musical selections, the play has a storyline for those, like me, who are not purists and seek enlarged theatrical reach and reading of The Bard.
For Stormy Weather, playwright Williams has taken the bleached bones and some text from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610) then fused tightly, like a driving wheel, with the transcending music of Billie Holiday (1915-1959).
With a poetic-prose style and about twenty carefully curated musical numbers, Stormy Weather retells The Tempest from the perspective of Sycorax. She is the character Shakespeare gave no lines of dialogue. He only described her as a “blue-eyed hag” and then a quick dismissal from The Tempest’s text. For the IN Series production, however, a marker is laid down in the program notes; Stormy Weather “explores the experience of peoples enslaved by privilege and even love.”
Under the sure hand of director Alison Wong, the multi-layered Stormy Weather deconstructs The Bard to bring the spotlight to Sycorax along with the sprite, Ariel. Sycorax is described as a “great queen of her realm, a female chieftain [with] things in common with Billie Holiday. Being misunderstood, and disenfranchised, she is power and magic, perseverance and strength,” wrote Wong in her program notes.
Playwright Williams has the character Prospero find himself shipwrecked on an island somewhere off the coast of the US. The time is 1944. Prospero is a WWII prisoner-of-war on the way to imprisonment in America after being captured by the Allies. Once on the island, Prospero meets the indigenous inhabitants. What does he do? He makes them his prisoners and worse. He then opens Prospero’s Bar and Grill. The Bar and Grill becomes the setting for Stormy Weather.
Sycorax fights back against Prospero. She is a formidable woman of color. A woman of substance and earthiness. She is a character who seeks her own voice and to be heard. Sycorax remains the mother of Caliban and the mistress of Ariel. Just don’t expect to see other characters you may recall in this slimmed-down version of the play.
Michelle Rogers portrays Sycorax with a strong presence and cool assurance; a woman to be venerated as finding her own empowerment. Rogers is unruffled and no-nonsense as she verbally demands that others (and the audience too) listen and hear her. She wants everyone to call her by her rightful name rather than an imposed name.
The revelatory, illuminating musical numbers that add so much deep insight and to the play’s smolder and fire are sung with the wondrous velvety voice of Nigel Rowe as Ariel. No cursed cloven pine tree (as Shakespeare described Ariel) at all, for Rowe is a willowy, charismatic spirit. As Ariel, Rowe is the musical narrator of the evening and doppelganger of Billie Holiday.
Nigel Rowe sings with curvy, languid mannerisms, adding visual dash to the darkness that the play reveals. The songs sung by Rowe help take down audience resistance to playwright Williams’ deeper message. Rowe as Ariel finds a personal connection with the audience. He loves the audience whether performing up-tempo jazzy numbers, or slower bluesy tunes elongating words and with pitch-perfect phrasing such as “My Man,” “Strange Fruit,” “Don’t Explain,” and “God Bless the Child” to note a few. When singing traditional numbers such as “Ye Ye Oshun” and “Name Song,” Rowe gives the audience an education. Rowe does as Shakespeare wrote; As they smelt music: so I charm’d their ears.
Prospero is an aging hipster played by a generally easygoing Matty Griffiths. He is visible throughout the production, but the spotlight on him fades. Sycorax’s son Caliban is a befuddled individual. Portrayed by Jabari Exum (who also plays the drums on stage) Caliban is a haunted presence (and bartender in Prospero’s Bar and Grill). He is generally puzzled by his mother Sycorax’s physical and sensual desires. He seems to wonder, how can a parent want an adult lover who may not seem a match? Then again how can a son ever understand what a mother may desire as she reclaims her own body?
The show’s marvelous musical accompaniment is led by musical director and pianist Greg Watkins with band members Percy White on Bass and the trumpet of Alex Parchment (performing on October 26) and Jared Bailey (performing on October 25 and 27). The combo is visible at stage right. The musical accompaniment is elegantly supper-club smart.
An unfussy set design by Jonathan Robertson consists of metal scaffolding for the actors to move through, strategically placed white cloth ribbons, a small on-set bar at audience right, a place for Ariel to have a standing microphone and a number of round cabaret tables as well as audience seating. Incandescent lights and an ever-changing wash of winning, moody lighting design by Marianne Meadows is terrific. Costume designer Benjamin Weigel wows with inspired colorful creations worn by Rowe as Ariel and Rogers as Sycorax. The costumes provide a rich variety of gender expression.
The In Series’ Stormy Weather provides a new reading for an iconic text. It challenges the audience as good theater should. It is a labor of love with a persuasive sweep to its viewpoint and educational aims. Do witness for yourself.
Stormy Weather is also another marker by artistic director Timothy Nelson for his vision for the In Series: “Opera that speaks. Theater that sings.”
Running Time: About 2 hours with no intermission.
Stormy Weather plays through October 27, 2019, at Atlas Performing Arts Center, Sprenger Theatre, 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC. To purchase tickets for Stormy Weather, call (202)-399-7993 or go online.