One of the most surprising things about 7 Stages' production of Pearl Cleage's A Song for Coretta is that it's playing at 7 Stages. The Little Five Points theater has a history of staging avant-garde, experimental material, while playwright Pearl Cleage's comedy/drama embraces middlebrow theatrical conventions.
For the most part, A Song for Coretta comfortably wears its mainstream mantle. Cleage gathers a mismatched quintet of strangers who joke around, fight bitterly and bond in barely an hour. Cleage, director Crystal Dickinson and the play's five actresses slip into the story with such grace and snap that you don't mind the contrivances – in fact, you rather enjoy them – until the play takes a sharp, heavy-handed turn in its last 20 minutes.
Cleage chooses an intriguing setting: a line of mourners standing outside Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church waiting patiently to pay their respects to the recently deceased Coretta Scott King. All African-American women, A Song for Coretta's characters nevertheless make vivid, calculated social contrasts and include Helen (Andrea Frye), a stuffy, old guard Civil Rights activist; Mona Lisa (the joyous Marguerite Hannah), a jovial but canny artist and Hurricane Katrina survivor; Zora (Brynn Tucker), an enthusiastic Spelman student; and Keisha, aka "Li'l Bit" (scene-stealing DeAndrea Crawford), a hilariously brash and uncouth high schooler.
A Song for Coretta's first half contains numerous delightful little character touches, such as the way Zora, recording interviews for a possible NPR story, reverently intones the name "Coretta. Scott. King." But Cleage's primary goal is to measure the accomplishments and spirit of King and the Civil Rights era with the state of contemporary America, particularly for black women. Helen particularly lays into Keisha, a pregnant teen who lives off the earnings of a drug dealer, as embodying the worst failings of her generation.
Cleage's indignation at contemporary politics sends the play into a sharp turn with the arrival of Gwen (Bobbi Lynne Scott), an Iraq war medic due to return at the end of her leave. Two characters tell wrenching stories in a ritualistic, nonrealistic fashion at odds with the rest of the play. Cleage draws grim parallels between the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina without singling out Washington decision-makers by name.
However thoughtful and passionate, the exchange feels less like the natural climax of A Song for Coretta and more like the jumping-off point of an angrier, more expressionist work – the kind you'd be more likely to find at 7 Stages. Nevertheless, Cleage leaves the audience with a haunting question that pays homage to the stirring example of King's life. Faced with all the injustices of the present day, what would Coretta do?
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