SINGIN’ WID A SWORD IN MA HAN’
Players Theatre 115 MacDougal St (at Minetta Ln)
Subway: A, C, E, B, D, F, V to W 4 th St
****[FOUR STARS] Asking the audience, “How you all doing?” at the start of the show, Topper (Vienna Carroll), a black woman who has escaped slavery, sets the direct tone of this captivating docudrama. Part concert and part folklore, Singin’ wid a Sword In Ma Han’ – written by Carroll and directed by Keith Johnston – features five actors assuming multiple roles on an empty stage, armed with only a few props: basket, quilt, calabash rattle. Based on research into the history of abolitionism in her hometown of York, Pennsylvania, Carroll’s story follows one family’s perilous escape from a Maryland plantation in the 1850’s, via the Underground Railroad. Narrated by Topper as she prepares to rescue her sister, Dorey – who was recaptured by the slave-catching Gap Gang – the hour-long play covers an impressive range of issues, including intraracial politics (slave owner Massa Patison is black), the role of religious faith in survival, sexual oppression and the subversive power of song. The play’s strength lies in its use of spirituals to tell a complex story and serve as a vehicle for not only emotional but physical escape. The vibrant songs are both moving and catchy – particularly those featuring the rich voice of New Orleans native Adé Herbert. If you like the music, maybe you’ll forgive the weaknesses: Why does the elderly mother, Mizz Kessie, carry a quilt around for the entire performance? How does the family catch so many lucky breaks? Still, anyone who enjoys enthusiastic church choirs and oral storytelling will be singin’ along. – Shayna Skarf, freelance writer
Review Lynn Berg
August 16, 2009
A woman walks onto an empty black stage in bare feet and says warmly, "Welcome." She looks at the audience expectantly and repeats "Welcome." We respond openly to her genuine invitation and Singin' Wid A Sword In Ma Han' begins. Vienna Carroll, the woman in the bare feet, simple dress, and head wrap, is also the playwright of this play of spirituals about the Underground Railroad and she effectively enraptures us with her character's voice and story. I found myself exiting the theatre singing the title song on the street.
That is one of the great achievements of a play full of great and simple achievements. It drew me into the kind of story I was ready to approach with typical, distant respect. I once had to sing a spiritual with its slave pronunciation intact for a voice class. As a white agnostic non-singer it was an uncomfortable experience. Greengurl Productions' Singin' Wid A Sword in Ma Han' has the opposite effect. It's funny, warm, touching, and engaging. The characters are not only believable and affecting but we connect with them and their story of love and self-determination in a personal way. And the actors fill the spirituals they sing with their characters' lives and breadth of experience, making the songs resonate through the audience.
Singin' Wid A Sword in Ma Han' is the love story of Topper and Nate, two slaves who risk their lives by running away because they want to be married. They take Nate's family on an odyssey through a hostile land full of peril and relief where they're never sure whom they can trust, even fellow slaves. It's a fascinating account in which I learned more about the Slave Grapevine and the measures some went through to determine their fate. Their spirituals provide strength and hope but the end of the play is smartly uncertain.
Carroll and Ade Herbert, both gifted and charming performers, carry us away with them on their journey as Topper and Nate. They're aided by the talented Dawn Bennett, Dawn Murphy, and Omar Perez who give persuasive life to their various characters. Each actor has singular moments, Perez portraying power in quiet ways, Bennett substantial and real, and Murphy particularly good as Davey, one of various portrayals of conductors on the Underground Railroad. The songs receive mighty accompainiment from Linda Murdaugh's voice and hand percussion. All the performers have beautiful, resonant voices that give the spirtuals woven into the story power, humor, sadness and hope.
The show is simply and effectively directed by Keith E. Johnston, bringing the production together using the limitations of FringeNYC as strengths. Johnston shrewdly achieves more with less, letting the performers tell this story of love, faith and freedom with their voices and bodies skillfully lit by Peter Leonard. Singin' Wid A Sword in Ma Han' is fine storytelling transporting the audience with an inspirational American tale and art form.
Author: Vienna Carroll, Playwright and Music – African-American Spirituals
Director: Keith Johnston
Producer: GreenGurl Productions
Vienna Carroll's SINGIN WID A SWORD IN MA HAN
by Elisa Kimble November 5
The West Harlem Library Series and Green GURL Productions presented Singin Wid a Sword in Ma Han on Saturday October 26, 2013 at the George Bruce Branch library.
Singin Wid a Sword in Ma Han is described as a Underground Railroad love story created by Vienna Carroll, playwright, producer, singer and lead actor in the play. This musical docudrama is set in the 1850's in a church in Columbia, PA, where enslaved Africans gather and brilliantly plot an escape route from church to church and hand to hand, along with a supportive community both black and white.
Singin interweaves spirituals as escape songs to gain strength and overcome insurmountable odds with vigor and harmonies that would lift any soul even today.
Although the story of the Underground Railroad is familiar, powerhouse Vienna Carroll, who plays Topper, is the consummate storyteller; her genius is reflected in her ability to tell an often horrific tale through words and through song in a mezzo soprano voice that is both reverberating and sweet; she makes you trust her the entire journey.
Singin was once a one woman show starring Vienna Carroll until director Keith E. Johnston collaborated with Carroll. Together they created a grander vision combining the talents of Rod Singleton (Ben, Nate, Conductor) LaVonda Elam (Lene, Dorey, Davey, Massa Patison,) Paula Galloway (Linda, Mizz Kessie) Glenn Gordon (Nsangou) - (Tad, Overseer, Carlisle, Cato, Maroon) and Henrique Prince (Fiddle, vocals) , who Carroll calls her Griot chorus to sing, recite and dance the tale of a people often misjudged as victims. The truth of the enslaved Africans character and spirit was heard clearly from the harmony of the Griot chorus singing perseverance songs such as Keep A-Inchin Along, Chilly Water and Ride On Moses to name a few.
Singin was a sixty minute work with a thirty minute Q & A following, where the magic of the performers continued as the actors jumped into the roles of educators, when they sat intimately along the edge of the stage captivating the audience with tale after tale of the enslaved Africans genius and how they were not victims; their history includes 400 turbulent years of resistance, rebellion and escape. Vienna Carroll wrote a tale of a happy ending where enslaved people banned together, plotted an escape with other people and were victorious.
I asked producer Orlando Rivera why the play was only one hour and he said, "We only wanted to whet your appetite"; I want him to know that we are all hungry for more.
© 2014 Copyright Wisdom Digital Media. All Rights reserved.