Raw one moment, richly comic the next. Subtle in one scene, directly challenging the audience the next. The world premiere musical Gun & Powder at Signature Theatre is strikingly effective storytelling about how identity can be constructed so people are seen or made invisible by onlookers.
Make no mistake, it is also soaring musical entertainment with a cast of heavenly singers, expressive dancers and damn strong actors.
The Gun & Powder book and lyrics by Angelica Cheri are based upon Cheri’s own family’s stories, folklore and research. Gun & Powder is described by Signature as “inspired by the true story of Mary and Martha Clarke, African American twins — who pass themselves as White to help settle their mother’s sharecropper debt and seize the funds by any means necessary.” The setting is the hostile cotton-growing Texas of 1893, decades after Emancipation. Can the sisters’ bonds withstand a journey that provides plenty of good times but equal amounts of trauma, trials and tribulations?
With music by Ross Baum, Gun & Powder has nearly 30 original musical numbers that capture the rhythms and sounds of R&B, jazz, blues, folk, pop and show music. To my ear, the most persuasively pointed compositions are often solo ballads, with a Gospel church music feel with a soft, yet mighty organ chord-like underpinning.
The musical numbers added percussive fuel to the storyline; like a song by a powerfully voiced minister who expertly adds life-lesson parables to a Biblical sermon about life in a tough world. Music director Darryl G. Ivey leads a smoking 10-member band. Choreography by Bryon Easley is full of impressive kenetic energy especially for full company numbers.
With both a delicate and muscular touch, award-winning director Robert O’Hara of Broadway’s Slave Play makes an impressive Signature debut. Chéri and Baum won the prestigious Richard Rodgers Award for Gun & Powder in 2018. The year before, it was chosen from among 170 plays to be developed through the SigWorks Musical Theater Lab at Signature Theatre.
Gun & Powder has a superlative cast, many of them newcomers to the Signature Theatre mainstage. Solea Pfeiffer portrays Mary Clarke and Emmy Raver-Lampman plays Martha Clarke. The two sisters have different personalities and outlooks on life. Their voices and song delivery are compelling and intense, just what the production’s hard-edged storyline requires.
Along the sisters’ journey, the meaning of the title Gun & Powder will become quite apparent; the title represents the sisters’ natures.
Marva Hicks is Tallulah Clarke, their mother. She is a Black sharecropper who was abandoned by the White man who fathered her biracial daughters Mary and Martha. Compared to their mother and their kinfolk, the two sisters are light-skinned. In full company musical numbers such as “Cotton” and “Wide Open Plains,” the audience learns of the tough life the family and the community lead under the whip of a White overseer.
Mary and Martha make plans to try to pass as White and earn money to send back to their mother to pay rent. In a key early scene reinforced with the song “The Train,” the initially tentative sisters learn of their new-found power in passing as White as they interact with White passengers. Their confidence grows as they take on the White world.
As they come to know a White rich saloon keeper named Jessie, played with edgy resonance by Dan Tracy, the sisters’ world begins to spin in unexpected ways. Mary finds Jessie attractive, but race is an obstacle. Her inner turmoil comes through in two songs; she sings about Jessie being a “Real Man,” while balancing her own mixed race heritage in the song “The Way I Am.” Martha has another reaction to Jessie as she sings and acts out “Trigger.”
The sisters meet some of Jessie’s workers including two Black maids; Sissy (Yvette Monique Clark) & Flo (Awa Sal Secka). They also meet Jessie’s ramrod butler Elijah portrayed by Donald Webber Jr. One of Jessie’s showgirls, the White seemingly carefree Fannie Porter (Crystal Mosser), makes an appearance as well.
Sissy and Flo provide comic relief and keen observations about “chocolate babies” and sing a rollicking “Dirty Shame” and the ripping “Dangerous.” They make marvelous affirmative observations with only a few spoken words.
Elijah, like his Biblical namesake, is a suffering prophetic character. His soulfully lush rendition of “Invisible” is overwhelming, a quiet wail from a man wanting to be seen and heard, tired of living as he has had to. His attempt at happiness with Martha Clarke is epitomized in a duet, “Under A Different Sun.”
The remainder of Gun & Powder, this reviewer will not give away. Just this, it is a provocative stunner that illuminates coming to terms with who one is and one’s personal truth with a final company performance of “All of Me.”
The creative team developed a mostly bare stage into any number of settings with projections and lighting that added weight and interest along with a towering, movable two-level structure. The scenic design is by Jason Sherwood, lighting by Alex Jainchill with projections by Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson.
The visuals created by the costumes, wigs, hair and make-up are crucial to the production. Dede Ayite is the costume designer and J. Jared Janas was responsible for wigs, hair and make-up. The work of Ayite and Janas buttressed the visual representations of the Clarke sisters. Please do not overlook their work.
Gun & Powder is a wonderfully unnerving and unsubtle production. It is memorable in its potent storytelling and impressive entertainment values.
A commanding musical about characters learning who might stand with them in testing times, the imaginative Gun & Powder takes on pointed issues including race, privilege and poverty as well as survival and resilience when skin color is used as an identity marker.
Gun & Powder is unafraid. It does not pull punches.
Running time: About two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
Gun & Powder plays through February 23, 2020, at Signature Theatre-The Max, 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 820-9771 or go online.
READ John Stoltenberg’s Magic Time! column, “Who is Black? Signature Theatre’s ‘Gun & Powder’ hits a national nerve.”
Just Passing Through
Gun & Powder
Exactly His Type
The Way I Am
The Shot That Shook The Soul
Dirty Shame (Reprise)
Under a Different Sun
All of Me