In “Blackberry Daze,” the latest production in Paul Robeson Theatre’s 50th anniversary season, we find a theater company working at its very best levels. The show is confident, dense with talent, and well rehearsed for its run. With only minor flaws, it has a lot to be proud of.
The musical is based on Ruth P. Watson’s novel “Blackberry Days of Summer,” one in a series of books involving Carrie, a young woman living and surviving in the Deep South following the Great War. She is a fighter, a learner, a dreamer, and in this chapter of her saga, the victim of a horrendous crime at the hand of her mother’s lover. He’s moved into the small country home she shares with her tough-loving mother, Mae Lou.
Every woman in Carrie’s world is tough, either through the stare of their steely, wise eyes or the errant spit flying off of their God-fearing lips. They’re strong and ready to defend. Love abounds for their own, for anyone who seeks a future, a family, a fortune of some kind.
Herman Camm, on the other hand, is a philandering villain. He’s abused other women in Carrie’s hemisphere, and they’ve all had it. By the play’s elusive ending, justice is paid—by whom, is another concern. Despite its whodunit overtones, this is a murder mystery in which the real victims are the ones who survived, left to pick up the pieces of their perpetrator’s crimes. It sure does take a village to make that kind of pivot, to tend to the berries that will once again harvest their next nourishment.
This production is also well nurtured. Directed and choreographed by the show’s writer, Thomas W. Jones II, the staging shows grit and determination. It starts strong, thanks to musical director Frazier Thomas Smith’s delicious piano work of composer William Knowles’s blues score, evocative of the period but sprinkled with contemporary textures. This matches the old-new aesthetic in Harlan Penn’s polished barnwood set design and Malik Griffin’s modern lighting. In many ways, the design brings to mind the Menier Chocolate Factory’s London and later Broadway revival of Marsha Norman’s “The Color Purple”: historical and referential, but modern and impressionistic.
Jones’s direction feels that of a moving train; this cast is the engine, and the material is the oil. The ensemble really runs this show (a wave to stage manager David Townsend), from one brief scene to the next, all the while nudging the benches, pulling the tracked walls, and grabbing the hanging chairs that will comprise the following moment’s environment.
They move quickly and confidently, and never lose steam. This is important since these are the tiny pebbles over which many theater productions, in any company, tend to trip. On opening weekend, everything moved at a breakneck pace. This ensemble appears to know all of their many choreographies by heart. Some erroneous lighting cues and a few pitchy musical moments notwithstanding, it’s in great shape.
The company is well cast, and full of vocal joy. We’re talking about characters (and, according to their bios, most performers) raised to sing in the church, to sing from their guts and hearts, to the very back of the proverbial room. As an audience, we should be so grateful for a vocal performance that’s so clearly draped in authenticity, serving the story and material with shared priority. What a thrill.
As Carrie (a Celie-like character, another obvious nod to “The Color Purple”), Danielle Green appears small and meek. That is, until she opens her mouth. She talks back to Mae Lou like any teenager might, but does so with a sternness that’s just destined for a big 11-o’clock number. Green is a force.
Latosha Payton serves her own as Mae Lou, a caring mother figure who’s got plenty of bite in her bark but even more growl in her pipes.
As the women’s matriarch, Annie Mae, Sandra Gillam completes the link in a lineage that won’t put up with the mess of a no-good man. Ayana Naomi and Tifani Wofford offer wonderfully convicted performances as well.
Herman Camm is a central figure, the subject of the perfunctory murder-mystery plot line. But he exists more as a punching bag for his victims’ responses. He is played by a performer named Fisher, who keeps his head low, his snarl to a seedy simmer, and his presence more or less elusive. Herman Camm is the prototype of a man; a man who is no man at all. Despite this etching, Fisher delivers with plenty of personality and presence.
Augustus Donaldson, as Simon, Carrie’s good-natured young boyfriend (and in another role that’s far from it), felt a little jittery, a little less grounded than his scene partners. As Simon, a slightly slower tempo might help us see the antidote in what a good man actually looks like.
As far as new musicals go, this is what a good one looks like.
★ ★ ★ ½ (out of 4)
Performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through May 27 in Robeson Theatre, 350 Masten Ave. Tickets are $22 to $30 (aaccbuffalo.org, 884-2013).