Billy Holiday’s likeness on the poster for Meadow Brook Theatre’s Michigan premiere of “Sistas the Musical” was enough to win the interest of this reviewer. And indeed, the music credits for this jukebox revue are glorious, ranging from the smoky torch songs of Lady Day and Bessie Smith, to the rockin’ tunes of our own Motown Divas, to chartbusters by such superstars as Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys. Best of all, these songs are performed by five women who know how to belt out a tune. Still, there is more to this show than one might expect.
Playwright Dr. Dorothy Marcic spent years researching the way that African-American women have been represented by popular music over the decades. In fact, one of the characters in “Sistas” is a music-history scholar who explains that the early songs “named the pain” as an act of solidarity, later songs “framed the pain” so that women could take action, and current songs “proclaim” the hard-won freedom that black women have earned for themselves. It is because of this music, and through this music, that the characters take up a story that covers such difficult topics as Jim Crow laws and date rape, and such diametrically opposed figures as Mahalia Jackson and Angela Davis.
The story is organic to the music. A beloved family matriarch has passed, and three of her granddaughters, with their sister-in-law and a teenaged great-granddaughter, have gathered in the attic of her St. Louis home. As they sort through their Grandma’s belongings, they try to agree on a song they can perform as a tribute at her memorial service. They all have different ideas about what to sing.
Simone (Lucy Shropshire) is the thoughtful professor and single mother who takes care to contextualize the various songs for the benefit of her college-bound daughter and, in turn, for the audience. Her silky interpretations of “My Man” and “Stormy Weather” carry the phrasings of a true jazz vocalist.
The widowed Gloria (Monica J. Palmer) carries forward her grandmother’s deep Christian faith, which has sustained her through the loss of her beloved husband. She favors Gospel tunes, and does a power-ballad rendering of “Precious Lord Take My Hand” before serving up more popular Motown classics.
Roberta is played by Jennifer Fouché, who created the role for the off-Broadway run. Roberta has rejected her family’s faith and believes that the true songs are the ones that speak to the injustice found everywhere in black women’s experience. She is proud, cynical, and much more militant than her sisters. Fouché performs with gymnastic vocal range and force; she offers an especially chilling interpretation of “Strange Fruit” but is equally brilliant on the big, upbeat tunes.
Heather (Stacy White) is a white woman married to the sisters’ brother Calvin. She has her own family stories about bigotry, but also of her mother’s experience during the Civil Rights movement. She sings a sweet version of the Janis Ian folk ballad, “Society’s Child” and a soulful rendition of “You Are Beautiful.”
Tamika (Felicia Renae) is Simone’s headstrong daughter. She is besotted with a parasitical young man whom none of the older women approve of; and a number of the songs are performed for Tamika’s benefit. Renae has a beautiful voice with amazing range and versatility. She makes a big entrance to “Milkshake,” the Kellis hit written by Pharrell Williams. But she really blows the audience away with her performance of the Whitney Houston hit, “I Have Nothing,” which is especially moving.
Together, these women are indomitable—especially when they perform a medley of Motown songs (love that Holland/Dozier/Holland songbook) and demand a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T. “Sistas” shows us how music is a living archive of the personal stories that make up a shared, historical narrative. It is play that everyone can enjoy and one worth bringing the younger generation to see and hear, if for no other reason, to show them the source of their own music.
“Sistas” is directed by Travis W. Walter with music direction by Zachary Ryan (the original off-Broadway “Sistas the Musical” music director). Tyrick Wiltez Jones is the choreographer and Deon Ridley is the associate choreographer. Terry Carpenter is the stage manager, with delightful attic set design by Jen Price Fick, costumes by Mary Elizabeth Winther, lighting by Matthew J. Fick and sound by Mike Duncan.
Zachary Ryan also directs the band and plays piano. Joining him are Sig Helper (Guitar), Timothy D. Martuch (Bass) and Nick Matthews (Percussion).
Tickets range from $27 to $42 and are available by calling the Meadow Brook Theatre box office at 248-377-3300 or purchasing them online at Ticketmaster. Student discounts are available at the box office. Groups of eight or more should call 248-370-3316 for group pricing. Performances are scheduled Wednesdays through Sundays, but curtain times vary; see the theatre’s online calendar for more information. Meadow Brook Theatre is located in Wilson Hall on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester.