Dallas — Believing that “There are black American stories somewhere between slavery and ghetto that also deserve telling,” Joyce Carol Thomas committed herself to telling the stories of African American life through poetry, plays, and young-adult literature. In her first young-adult novel, Marked by Fire, readers are introduced to Abyssinia Jackson. We follow 20 years of her life starting when she was a young black girl growing up with her family in rural Ponca City, Oklahoma. She was born during a tornado and gifted with a beautiful voice. Abyssinia was raised in faith, but endured significant challenges while still quite young. This story is less about the challenges than it is about how she responds to them.
James Racheff and Ted Kociolek developed this story into the book for a musical, Abyssinia. Kociolek composed the music and Racheff, the lyrics. It was first produced by Musical Theater Works at the CSC Repertory Theater in New York in 1987.
Lyric Stage premiered the piece regionally in 2001. They are bringing the piece back to the Majestic Theatre in Dallas, running Feb. 14-16. Directing this production is Akin Babatundé with musical direction by Sheilah V. Walker, who was also the musical director and conductor for the 2001 production.
Musical directors are not usually interviewed, which is curious given that without the music, there is no musical. We thought it would be interesting to chat with both of them about this show, especially given that one of them was involved in the first run.
TheaterJones: Sheilah, has the property changed from the version you worked in 2001?
Sheilah V. Walker: Yes, it has. The script has been revised and some music has changed a bit. The core story is still based on Joyce Carol Thomas’ book, Marked By Fire. Some of the orchestrations needed updating. There are two new songs in this version that were not in the original. Bruce Geer did the orchestrations. In addition, he is my associate, the rehearsal pianist, and the pianist in the [orchestra] pit during the run.
Otherwise, this production has a completely different feeling because this is a new team, which is to be expected. This time we have Akin as the director. Having seen the ideas he has created, I am excited to revisit this story for that reason.
The country Ethiopia was formerly Abyssinia. Is there a connection between the mother country on the African continent and this musical?
Akin Babatundé: From my perspective, I think this work has a real connection to Africa. Transformation becomes something greater despite the trials and tribulations one might have had. The author tells us her story is based on the book of Job in the Christian bible. For me, the Job in my life is the Middle Passage, and the connections for all of us who are part of the African diaspora. We are the descendants of those slaves, including those left on the boats to die during the voyage to America. We are the descendants and we have created and contributed major gifts to that legacy, i.e. the blues, spirituals, jazz, rap. I look at this as being an African American production with all that it means, and the questions it evokes.
Where does that come from in terms of struggle? How does one deal with struggle and trauma and tragedy? In our community, we deal with it, look at the triumph of it and the transformation. So this is the way I perceived the work, that it is tied to Job but not limited to that, going far beyond.
After so many years in this business, the two of you are finally working together. How are your partnership bene so far?
AB: This thing that Sheilah and I have, this kind of artistic love affair, we’ve been trying to make happen for a long time. Every time we would see each other we would say “when are we going to work together?” She would say “oh honey, we’ve gotta find a project.”
SW: I am not accepting as many shows as in the past, but I will work for Lyric because of Steve [Jones, Lyric’s founder]. This piece was something he wanted to do again. I decided that this time I wanted to revisit it and make something different of it than the time before.
With the 2001 production, we started rehearsal on 9/11.
What? You didn’t cancel?
SW: No. We decided to plow through and just do it, and not cancel rehearsal. I remember it did not take me very long to travel because no one was on the highway.
This time, in the middle of rehearsal, the Kobe Bryant tragedy happened. I just took to heart what was happening and decided we are supposed to triumph. This story is supposed to survive. It is a strong story, giving us a strong sense of who we are. We are to keep going no matter what is happening in our lives and I think this is why we are doing this show at this particular time.
What else would you like our readers to know?
SW: This story is fraught with so much that Akin has been able to bring out that I would never have thought of. The actors have been to the mountaintop with Akin.
AB: Because of the collaboration between us, and a cast like this, the audience will see storytelling on a unique and non-linear way. I love stories where I am surprised because of the craft and the means by which the story is told by the performers. I would want them to see a story in an interesting way about people who triumph and about transformation. It is very entertaining and will resonate with you on many different levels.
SW: This is not a piece that says, “oh we’re black.” This is a universal story which talks about a family who happens to be black, in a village that happens to be black. This very gifted young child could be anybody’s child. Mother Vera, the medium, could just as easily be a Latina. The characters could be of any culture.
The music reminds me more of Gershwin because it has so many quasi-classical elements. You can hear a 1980s feel in the music through the instrumentation because it was written in the late ’80s. Then there is another piece with a ’40s feel, one that is classical ragtime and several other genres. People might be surprised at all of the things they will hear musically.