Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri
Colorblind — A Musical had a tenuous start Feb. 20, when one of the leads was unexpectedly delayed by about an hour. This, however, gave the rest of the actors, the writers and the director a great opportunity to conduct an impromptu Q & A session with the audience members, who had braved potholes and piles of icy snow to come to the Tri-Cities Opera Center, 315 Clinton Street in Binghamton for the world premiere.
I was privileged to be among them and learned that Colorblind, with book and lyrics by Laura Cunningham and her sister, Lynn Szigeti, is being workshopped in this venue. While not quite finished, it is an engaging and ultimately moving production.
Produced by Just Laura Productions, and directed by Michael Susko, the show comes together with the talents of a lot of people but isn’t affiliated with any of the usual groups from the Binghamton community or academic theater scene and, therefore, can’t (and shouldn’t be) perceived by the usual standards. It is a whole different animal. Acknowledgments are given to literature and media designer Tony Yajko, the Cider Mill Playhouse, Tri-Cities Opera and some other familiar names: Craig Saeger (set and lighting designer), Jeff Stachrya (sound designer), Nicole Richards (stage manager) and Elaine Laramee (assistant musical director/vocal coach).
Most of the music for Colorblind is written by Ken Martinak, Szigeti and Cunningham; the music for “I’m Not Going Back” is by Doug Beardsley. While the score is still evolving, it has much promise. The questions fielded at the opening night session proved that the show’s premise is going to be the subject of lively conversation for a long time to come.
Cunningham said that she felt fortunate to have gotten a thumbs-up from the all-African-American cast for her dialogue and lyrics, despite her being a middle-aged white woman. This is not unprecedented.
Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, faced some of the same questions when her top-selling book was published in 2010, and she continues to receive criticism, despite the book’s wildly successful run as a hardcover volume and later as a film starring Viola Davis. If this musical can enjoy even a tenth of the success of that book and film, it will go down in Binghamton history as a thought-provoking, if not groundbreaking, work, and we can be proud as a community to have supported its evolution.
That said, it may have a way to go. Colorblind is a generational play about a high school senior, Jackie Whittaker, preparing to apply to Harvard University but refusing to “check the box” on his application indicating his race, hoping university officials will make a “colorblind” decision to admit him. While his parents clearly want him to have every advantage, they, too, struggle with the issue he faces as a kid of color, having dealt with it themselves, and tell him that people will make assumptions about how he got in, if he is indeed accepted, whether he indicates his race on the application or not. You want him to be able to make a more convincing argument for why it is so important to him in the first place, as there are things about his own parents he doesn’t know yet. But you come to understand, instead, that the idea of a truly colorblind society is a misnomer, and maybe should be, if we, as a society, hope to learn to celebrate our diversity, without prejudice. The word itself, “colorblind,” is an acknowledgment of the obvious and begs the question about judgment based on the presence of color, just by uttering the word, if that makes any sense. So is it time to retire the phrase altogether?
While it is disheartening to think that people continue to be judged, it is in fact naïve to assume that they won’t be any time soon. The point of this musical is to make the case for the day when it’s no longer an issue, so that, if and when the goal of the musical is reached, it may be less compelling to watch once that happens, as it won’t have the same impact, and shouldn’t. The producers need not worry, however. We, as a society, clearly have some work to do, when, for instance, “stand your ground” laws continue to hamper justice and when even the single minority juror in the George Zimmerman trial now reports that she was treated suspiciously by the other jurors as they considered the case against him in the death of Trayvon Martin.
The musical addresses this indirectly in the sardonic but hilarious number called “Momma, Don’t Take My Hoodie Away” with amazing moves and voices of Lonzo, Katie and J.M., Jackie’s best friends.
The show is blessed with a talented cast, with David Melendez as Jackie, Emma Brunson as his mom, Mrs. Whittaker, and Dwayne DJ Marcus as his dad, Dr. Whitaker. Both parents have an opportunity to shine with solo musical numbers: hers about her worth as the soul of that family in the poignant “I’m Not Going Back There” and his about his need to be who wants to be, even as a successful man in midlife (“Had a Dream”). Both Brunson and Marcus moved a lot of us in the audience to tears, such was the universality of their characters.
The young actors who play Jackie; his girlfriend, Katie, and his friends J.M and Lonzo are nuanced in their portrayals of young people on the cusp of adulthood. Some of the script has some possibly unintentional stereotyping, but it’s never easy when you are trying to make something familiar and believable to know exactly where caricatures end and characters begin. They all walk a fine line, these fine actors and writers, and ultimately pull it off with only a few eye-rolling moments.
Anthony Wright is Jackie’s effusive and almost acrobatic friend, Lonzo, who wants to join the military. Shanice Hodge is Katie, Jackie’s perfectionist girlfriend, and she and Jackie have a couple of moments that, while sweet with beautiful vocals, border on the sappy as they vow their devotion to one another. You know it won’t last beyond their freshman year, but you wish them well. Imani Pearl Williams’ character, a young black woman raised by white British parents you only hear about once, has identity issues, too, trying to be a poet, but she has the most fun when embracing her black roots, and Williams is a joy to watch.
Some technical issues with the show included the blurring of some of the words of the songs, possibly due to the loudness of the live band set up behind a screen at the rear of the stage.
The musicians, who were wonderful, included composer Martinak on keyboards, Larry Lolli on bass, Chris Adams on percussion and Mike Carbone on sax. One of these days, I’d like to hear voices without amplification, but everyone here is miked-up to the max, and as a former (old) radio person, I could see the meters bouncing way over in the hot zone. The themes explored are straightforward enough, thankfully, that understanding every last word is less important than the arrangements of the songs, but clarity would undoubtedly add to the enjoyment. There are a number of good tunes here.
You still have time to catch Colorblind — A Musical. Final performances are 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday (March 1-2). Click here for tickets: http://www.colorblindthemusical.com/tickets.html