Dallas — The Soul Rep Theatre Company season closes at the South Dallas Cultural Center with Ramona King’s folktale, Steal Away. The play is not a dramatization of the Negro spiritual of the same title, but each employs the themes of secrecy and concealment, and each is rooted in the black church.
The historical significance of the church in black communities cannot be overstated. Church pastors, who were typically male during the 1930s, were very highly regarded. They received public recognition, and the lion’s share of the communities’ respect and praise. Pastors were the faces of the organizations. But the real work of the black churches, especially fundraising, was more often shepherded by the women. Steal Away is the story of five Chicagoan churchwomen who’ve got game, and just enough sass to make things interesting.
TracyAda (D’Lisa VaShawn), having recently graduated from college, has returned home to her grandmother Stella Kyzer’s house (Guinea Bennett Price). Stella is a member of a churchwomen’s organization which each year, identifies a deserving young girl to send to college. Today is ceremony day in celebration of Tracy, their most recent protégé. Redd (Tonya Davis-Holloway), Blu (Yolanda Davis), Jade (Anyika McMillan-Herod), and Sudy (Kenja Brown) have come by Stella’s house to collect them for the celebration, and to discuss fundraising strategies because it is now time to identify another young woman for the award. Funds are low, so monies are needed. In the past, the churchwomen always held bake sales to cover this effort, but a couple of the women are tired of selling pies and want to do something different. Selling pies to people during the Depression is a losing proposition. Tracy shares an idea she was developing during her last year or so in college: they can rob a bank. Thus, the crux of the play: how can five black churchwomen during the 1930s enter a bank undetected, rob it and get away unscathed?
Price is ideal as the stubborn Stella, rooted in her ways and resistant to change. Perhaps the strongest personality among them is Blu and Yolanda Davis has her clearly defined. Brown is well-suited for the presentational style of Sudy, in stark opposition to nervous-as-a-cat Jade whom McMillan-Herod portrays with hilarity. Davis-Holloway’s Redd is like the middle-child, bridging the gaps that pop open between and among the other women. VaShawn is appropriately lovely as Tracy, though she spends a lot of her time observing or standing in the shadows of the churchwomen.
Part of this story unfolds in Stella’s home, but the heist occurs in the bank. For the heist scene, director Dee Hunter-Smith utilizes Charlie Chaplin-style black-and-white film (by Tonya Davis-Holloway). That is a fantastic idea and resultingly, the film is the strongest and funniest visual element of the production. Nash Farmer provides the voice of the post-robbery radio announcer.
Hunter-Smith has crafted the rest of the action on a stationary two-level set (by Guinea Bennett-Price and Douglas Carter), a choice that is not without a few challenges. The upper level was not masked for sound. As a result, the actors’ dialogue is competing with the sounds of character heels clunking around that level, and up and down the rake that bridges the two levels.
Otherwise, the actors’ performances create a sense of familiarity with the characters, pulling attention toward the story and away from any little slips in the script.
An implausible plot? Yes, but such is the stuff of folktales—a stretch here, a tweak there in the retelling. Overall, Steal Away is an enjoyable story by a woman about women that barrel through implausibility to accomplish magnificent feats. In this way, they are not unlike millions of women creating how’d-they-do-that moments today.