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‘Angels’ make a joyful noise in York show

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Other noteworthy events at the Jamaica institute of higher learning also seem to be underpublicized. The audience I saw "Band of Angels" with filled only about half the theater, when it should have been standing room only.The show is based on a book by Deborah Hopkinson. It is great for families - most of the audience was made up of kids - and tells the story of Ella, a former slave who joins the Fisk Jubilee singers, and her several times great granddaughter, also named Ella (played by Carmen Barika), a somewhat spoiled 12-year-old girl from Queens who, fittingly, takes her rights and privileges as an American for granted. The afternoon began with playwright Myla Churchill, who wrote the script for the musical, reading Hopkinson's book while a video screen presented Raul Colon's lovely drawings with their warm earth tones.Then the play began.In the play the young Ella, who's not doing as well as she could in school, has been sent over to her Aunt Beth's house, to give her and her parents a break. Ella thinks her aunt is a little crazy, because now and then she talks to the portraits of the ancestors she has on her wall, and the ancestors, played by various actors, talk back to her - sort of like those paintings in Harry Potter. Beth, played with warmth and wisdom by Fredi Walker-Browne, decides it's time for Ella to undergo sankofa - to go back in time and experience what these ancestors had to go through so this smart, snarky child could dream about growing up to be Beyonce."Who's Beyonce?" sniffs one of her forbears.So Ella changes her school uniform for the plain gray dress of a 19th-century girl, the better to go through the horrors of the Middle Passage voyage and slavery, and the promise of emancipation. At last she turns into her great-great-great-grandma, who enters Fisk University, a school for freedmen run by the visionary George White, and becomes the assistant director of White's Colored Christian Choir, a group that sings such tripe as "Home Sweet Home," in pear-shaped tones and with hands clasped primly to their waists. Since the school is in need of money, they take their show on the road and, predictably, nobody comes. The singers, most of them former slaves, at first resist White's suggestion that they sing the spirituals they sing to each other, for those songs represent pain and struggle. It's Ella who finally leads her colleagues into singing the old songs before an audience; the moment when CCC becomes the Jubilee Singers is devastating and wonderful.Indeed, much of the play is devastating and wonderful. The music and - can I say it? - angelic singing of the choir will make you blub, as will the scene where the school at which one of the singers teaches is burnt to the ground by an insane clown posse of nightriders - kudos to scenic and costume designer Meganne George and lighting designer Douglas Cox for making this tragedy so disconcertingly real. Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj's direction and choreography is stellar, as is Otts Munderloh's sound design, and Scott Hitz' properties design. David Ames' piano and Emedin Rivera's percussion give unobtrusive but powerful support to the singing. The music was selected and arranged by Linda Twine.The actors, Akil as Thomas, Kevin-Anthony as King, Joe Chappel as Chattel, Christine Clemmons as Jubilee, and Stacey Sargeant as Maggie, the school teacher, are not only great singers but great actors as well. Tony Chiroldes makes for a calm and defiantly optimistic George White, and Barika steals the show as Ella. She not only has an absolutely beautiful soprano, but she's hilarious and moving, no more so than when she slips into charming anachronisms while being her ancestor."Oh no you didn't come out your face like that!" she screeches to a white hotel owner who not only refuses to put up her troupe but insults them in black face. Fortunately the other singers drag her away before you can say "lynch mob." Barika can't possibly be 12 years old in real life.The evening ends with the chorus joining the cast in singing "This Little Light of Mine." It's a killer.Next time York College puts on something as good as "A Band of Angels," they should let people know.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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