Dallas — A mythic quality pervades composer Ted Kocielek and playwright James Racheff’s 1987 musical Abyssinia, which opened Friday night for a short run at the Majestic Theatre in a production by the Dallas-based company Lyric Stage. Based on Joyce Carol Thomas’ 1981 novel Marked by Fire, the play follows the coming of age of a young girl, lionized in her birth community for her musical skills, but faced with trials of illness, rape, betrayal, and vendetta in a narrative redolent of the Bible, Greek epics, and other ancient tales.
But the setting is not the ancient Middle East India or Asia, but rather an African-American community in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Thomas’ novel places the events in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, while this production, with scenery by Donna Marquet and costumes by Alastair Sigala Ramirez, moves the setting to the early 20th century. Although this chronological relocation misses the subtle tension of old and new in the novel, with the quiet hum of the Civil Rights Era in the background, it underlines the aura of timelessness in the heyday of Jim Crow.
The title role here belongs to Jaden Dominique, currently in her first year as a musical theater major at Texas Christian University. Dominique already owns an amazingly powerful voice and charismatic stage presence that allows her to more than hold her own in this professional cast: she can rattle rafters and also possesses a convincing dynamic range. If she doesn’t always find the internal shape of a phrase, that’s something that can come with a few more years of experience and study. And Dominique clearly has the voice and acting ability to carry her far beyond the regional theater scene; one can easily be reminded, when seeing and hearing Dominique, of the young Betty Buckley, who rose meteorically from regional theater in Dallas and Fort Worth to the Broadway stage in the 1970s.
Dominique’s character, Abyssinia Jackson, born (in keeping with the mythic quality of the story) in a cotton field during a tornado, is counterbalanced by the community’s steadfast resident wise woman and healer, Mother Vera (Carol Y. Dennis). Vera passes folk medicine and healing to Abyssinia, along with the recipe for a honey cake that, like the magic elixir of many a legend and folk tale, is capable of inducing both good and evil. For her part, Dennis combines the power of a roaring but beautiful vocal quality with a powerful charisma.
The snake in this isolated Garden of Eden takes the form of the character of Trembling Sally (Feleceia Benton), who lost her five children in the same tornado in which Abyssinia was born, and who has spent her life since that moment as a pariah consumed with jealousy of Abyssinia and anger at God for her fate. This is in many ways the most challenging and complex role in the play, and Benton pulls it off magnificently, convincingly portraying Sally’s motivation, her disruptive mental illness, and the evil that motivation has created. Indeed, though it didn’t draw the loudest applause Friday night, Benton’s performance of her ironically mournful aria “Ten Little Children” in Act 2 provided the real high point of the evening.
An almost equally powerful moment, however, arrived just a few moments later when Dennis, Benton, and Dominique joined for the stormy trio “I Have Seen the Wind,” in which these three singers soared in their vocal and dramatic exploration and discovery.
Kocielek’s score attempts, sometimes successfully and sometimes not so much, to enfold jazz, gospel, spiritual, and Broadway; the first iteration of a Pentecostal-style church meeting early in Act 1 has an artificial quality, lacking the feel of improvisation (whether faked or real) necessary to pull that sort of scene off successfully. However, the finale of “Lift Up Your Voice” succeeds in reaching inside the listener, with a tune that I (and a few others) hummed all the way home from the theater. Likewise, the trios “Recipe” and “Blackberry Wine,” both with clever, cascading lyrics, also charm and seduce the listener, the former with its wisdom and the latter with darkly humorous and wicked intent.
Ausben Jordan II provides a powerful rendition of Abby’s fate-driven but well-meaning father (ironically named Strong, though he ultimately proves to be weak); J. Dontray Davis gives a convincingly pivotal performance as the pastor of Stillwater Solid Rock Baptist Church. Chimberly Carter Byrom neatly shoulders much of the drama and vocal challenge as Abyssinia’s mother Patience, while Natasha Wells, Crystal Williams, and Louise Harris function as a Greek chorus of gossipy but insightful neighbors. D’Mariel Jones, Rodney Morris, and Canali Miller multi-task as community members but slip with ease into the role of rapists at another pivotal moment in the action. Rachel Palmer also does double duty as an ailing elderly woman and as Abyssinia’s loyal but sometimes misguided best friend.
Sheilah Vaughn Walker conducts the orchestra with precision, aplomb, and energy; as is customary with Lyric Stage productions, original acoustic orchestration is used. The ugly digital noise that accompanies so many local productions is always blessedly and admirably absent from this company’s musical productions.
Akin Babatundé directs the unfailingly lively action onstage; Brittanee Bailey choreographs the entire production and also performs solo dance segments. Except for her own dance, Bailey assigns the cast simple but effective choreography, much dependent on upper body and hand-and-arm motions — probably a wise option for a cast in which musical and vocal quality (rather than dancing) is the focus.
With its all-Black cast and brave exploration of uncomfortable and controversial issues, Abyssinia holds a unique place in the canon of American musical theater and provides a welcome addition to the season and to celebration of Black History Month. This production, with its focus on fine singing and musicality, exemplifies of the value of Lyric Stage on the regional theatrical scene.
» Read our interview with Akin Babatundé and Sheilah Vaughn Walker