With two ornery old white women invisible in the background showing off their blackbelts in berating, Transport Group, in association with The Public Theater, ushers expertly into view the engagingly emotional two-handed musical, Broadbend, Arkansas. It’s a delicately entwined historical journey that spans generations of pain, love, and defiance, all through the cracked lens of American racial inequality, the Civic Rights movement, racially motivated violence, police brutality, and the epic rally cry of the Freedom Riders of 1961. With beautifully crafted music and some additional lyrics by Ted Shen (A Second Chance), the dynamic libretto, split in two parts between Ellen Fitzhugh (“Just One Q“) and Harrison David Rivers (“Ruby“), flows forward effortlessly with such grace and radiance, it’s impossible not to get swept up in the movement and the lovingly personal engagements. All done with the some of the most exquisite voices heard on stage. Accompanied by their solid acting choices, the two drive their way into history and a sadly heartbreaking foregone conclusion, steeped in generational love and care, stitched in humanity and determination.
As directed with elegant grace and confidence by Jack Cummings III, just as he did in the glorious CSC’s Summer and Smoke, the two-part piece gently cruises its way down the road on the simply designed stage of The Duke on 42nd Street, courtesy of scenic consultant Dane Laffrey (Broadway’s Fool for Love), with superb music direction by Deborah Abramson (James Joyce’s The Dead) and orchestrations by Michael Starobin (First Daughter Suite). Each story unwinds, lazily almost, giving us details of interactions that at first seem superfluous, but they are wisely laying roots for later consumption. They give subtle flavors of time and compassion that creep in from the sides quietly, thanks to the fine work by lighting designer, Jen Schriever (NYTW/Broadway’s What the Constitution…), costuming by Peiyi Wong (Sinking Ship/The Tank’s A Hunger Artist), and sound design by Walter Trarbach (Broadway’s SpongeBob…), gently grabbing hold onto some piece of my heart with its honesty and unknown courage.
Truer words have not been spoken, particularly during that first segment taking place at the Broadbend Nursing home, 1961. The kind and determined Benny, perfectly embodied by Justin Cunningham (Broadway’s King Lear with Glenda Jackson) gives comfort and care to the pain of two small town women, who are ensnared in their own battle to paint Green black. At first it feels simplistic and pointless, albeit gorgeous in its musical attunement. We wonder where this journey is going to take us, as Cunningham skillfully bounces between characters and postures, giving us a fully unearthed characterization of each of the three souls on stage. His voice is as rich and layered as one can only imagine and dream of. Once he finally gets in the drivers seat, the next stop is the place where hope grows within, and pride and fearlessness blossoms quickly in the inspired heart of dynamic and detailed Benny.
It’s slow going at first, but the ride is worth the wait, particularly when we are driven into the Broadbend cemetery, 1988 and introduced to the robust but frightened Ruby. As played by the vocally powerful Danyel Fulton (Muny’s The Wiz), the second act of this piece finds its maternal heart and core and grabs hold of something more than simple story telling. She pulsates with pain and fear, traumatized by a past that we soon shall understand, and disturbed by the current violence that has once again entered her life and her family. At first we aren’t aware of the tangled strings that connect this piece to the first act. There is a resolution that is required, as Ruby begs to understand the better world and the better life promised, in a country where nothing seems to change. It’s not “A Wonderful Life“, this thing that stands before Ruby, but something she must stand up to, and be seen in a way she isn’t first able to tolerate.
Getting back on that bus seems like the right thing to do; to ride forward as bravely as those Freedom Riders did. Sitting proudly upright and defiant on a number of interstate buses transversing the segregated southern United States in the early 1960’s, challenging the non-enforcement of the United States Supreme Court decisions of 1946 and 1960 (Morgan vs. Virginia and Boynton vs Virginia) that ruled that segregated public buses were unconstitutional. Broadbent, Arkansa is that journey forward, majestically sung by two powerful performers, looking into and questioning the past, and staring forcefully into the present and the future. It pushes hard on the status quo, just like those brave mixed racial groups did to challenge local laws and customs that continued to enforce segregation in seating, even after the ruling. It’s a trip worth taking. So be proud and determined. Grab a seat, and buckle in for the emotionally charged journey through the complicated past and challenging present.
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