By Erin Fleming
Is it reality, fantasy or a dream? This is the question repeatedly asked by Piano (Camille Robinson) of Sarah (Toya Turner) in Pegasus Theatre Company’s world premiere of For Her as a Piano, a powerful, poetic play with music that traces the struggles of three generations of women, revealing how the past and present interconnect across time, space and memory.
Sarah, a 39-year-old social activist working on Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, wants more than anything to have a child, but unsuccessful attempts at conceiving with her boyfriend Bill has strained their relationship and left Sarah utterly ungrounded. While under anesthesia during surgery to remove uterine fibroids, she goes on a kind of reluctant vision quest for her identity that leads down the path of investigating her family history—a history that has never been told to her.
With a nod to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Sarah is joined on her unconscious journey by a supernatural guide named Piano and visited by three mythological ancestors, Motha Ku, Motha Maua and Motha Gbadu who play out scenes from her family’s obscured and traumatic past. It’s a sad heritage: full of pain, regret, physical and mental illness, passed down from generation to generation. Sarah is challenged to confront how similar her present might be to her mother’s and grandmother’s past. Will she finally hear the stories she’s never been told; will she be able to forgive and move on into her own articulated future?
Helping her along the way is the incredible choral music composed by Jaret Landon, whose work includes the Broadway musical, The First Wives Club. Landon’s layered a capella arrangements are part spoken word, part prayer, part chant; all serving as commentary on the action while showcasing the gorgeous, full-throated voices of the ensemble. When all seven ladies are singing together, gathered around the “piano,” as it were, it’s as if hundreds of women’s stories are converging and harmonizing with each other in a desperate attempt to be heard by those in the current moment. “Everything is now,” they cry out. “Wake up, Sarah!” they implore, a command clearly intended for the audience.
Lauren Nigri (scenic designer), creates an interesting world for the dreamscape to unfold in, with stacked piano-shaped platforms and oversized piano strings running from stage floor to ceiling. Robinson’s character Piano ushers us from scene to scene by plucking the strings (sort of like TV’s cliched “flashback” harpstrings signifier). Brittany Bodley’s costumes are designed so that the ensemble easily transforms in and out of symbolic African ancestors to the various men and women of Sarah’s family.
Ilesa Duncan uses a light hand to direct an incredible multi-generational cast featuring Nadirah Bost (Mary), Dushon Brown (Motha/Dirk), Toni Lynice Fountain (Delores), Nicole Michelle Haskins (Motha Mawu), Monette McLin (Motha Gbadu), Robinson (Piano) and Turner (Sarah). Duncan allows them to provide all the comedic relief they can in the rough material, and it’s all appreciated. Some of the moments where the actresses portray male characters are especially funny, as are scenes with Fountain’s foul-mouthed, no-nonsense matriarch Delores.
So, is it reality, fantasy or a dream? It’s the same question asked of the audience by playwright Nambi E. Kelley, whose critically acclaimed stage adaptation of Native Son ran to sold out and standing room audiences last year at Court Theater. Make no mistake, Kelley doesn’t make that easy to figure out, or even easy to watch. Thankfully, it’s more than easy to listen to. And worth the effort.
Pegasus Theatre Company and Chicago Dramatists present For Her as a Piano through November 1 at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Avenue. The theatre’s entrance is at Aberdeen & May. Tickets ($18-$30) are available online here or by phone at (866) 811-4111.