"Three Sistahs," a musical adaptation, some say, of Anton Chekhov's classic story of regrets, dreams, lost opportunities, longings and maybes, "The Three Sisters," is now on stage at the Paul Robeson Theatre. It's directed by the esteemed visitor, Thomas W. Jones II, who is also responsible for the book and lyrics; Janet Pryce wrote the story and William F. Hubbard the challenging music.
The Chekhov connection? Well, you could make a case. The Russian Prozorov family in "Sisters," notably Olga, Masha and Irina, do give way to the black Bradshaws, Olive, Marsha and Irene, in "Sistahs." Hand-wringing consumes most of the day in both family homes, where there are walls that "talk back." The past, what was, dominates. Chekhov had somebody say, "Happiness is not for us and can never be. All we can do is long for it." Same with the Bradshaws: They verbally spar more hurtful, insulting but their future is also cloudy.
And they sing lustily, loud and often about their lives. "Sistahs" is quasi-operatic, the story told in maybe two dozen songs and snippets, unlisted in the play's program, shared by a trio of dynamite Robeson performers with killer pipes: the bluesy and earthy Mary Craig; jazz-tinged Annette Christian; and Falisha Young, brassy, sassy and contemporary.
The three are comfortably adept at gospel, pop and R&B, a few thoughtful ballads and songs that defy type. Lyrics tumble nonstop; they are as funny, needy, mercurial and serious as they are plentiful. Frazier Smith does yeoman work as musical director.
The women -- a college professor, a suburban housewife and an Angela Davis-style anti-war and social activist -- have gathered in their father's house after a funeral. It's the late 1960s, Washington, D.C. Mama and Daddy, strong influences, are gone and now, too, is brother Andre, a reluctant soldier recently slain in Vietnam. Memories, real or imagined slights, guilt, life's bumps and bruises, anger, all mix with tongue-loosening wine to create a toxic evening. Between battles and storytelling arias, they laugh, hug, advise, accuse, temporarily forgive and dance -- a little disco along with the barbs -- and take turns reading saved letters from family members that are informative, heartfelt and often poetic, epistolary moments that are some of the night's best. At the end of the night, there is an uneasy truce.
Two major problems with "Three Sistahs:" The many issues at work -- family problems, individual crises, all the bubbling emotions at a funeral, the "ghosts" in the house, the history behind two folded flags on the mantel, the possibility that the three strong-willed siblings will seldom or never be together again all cause sorting out difficulties for audiences. And when thoughts or retorts or opinions are sung, often warbled by restless singers in perpetual motion (walking, circling, pacing), lyrics are lost, points skewed or scrambled. Director Jones apparently devised this tactic; all the good things about this unusual piece, mainly the hardworking and electric Craig, Christian and Young, become blurred.
Chekhov's three sisters frequently complained that in their lives, "nothing ever happened." Not so with the Bradshaw daughters: closure is delayed, too many far-reaching decisions to be made, too many hatchets to bury. They say, at last, that they have to "find their own stories, their own walls." It would be nice to think that they will.
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
WHEN: Through May 27
WHERE: Paul Robeson Theatre, African American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Ave.
TICKETS: $27.50 general, $25 seniors and students, $15 ages 5 to 12
INFO: 884-2013, www.africancultural.org