It's a truism that some histories are better expressed through song, though it's quite difficult to capture a particular epoch with an explosive musical soundtrack, especially if you want the soundtrack to endure twenty years later. But some people manage to do it well. Among them is local jazz vocalist and composer Molly Holm, the woman behind a new Shotgun Players production about African-American women working in Richmond's Henry Kaiser Shipyards during WWII. Called This World in a Woman's Hands, the play uses jazz, spirituals, and work songs to shore up the sentiment in a story that's as much about old Jim Crow as it is about Rosie the Riveter. The play strains to be contemporary even as it travels back in time.
Such tension doesn't always become a play, but in this case, it works. In fact, This World's success owes to a delicate balance of music, writing, and stagecraft. The play takes place in a set made to look like a factory, all wood trusses and two-by-fours with a shipping crane etched on the skyline. In one corner sits bassist Marcus Shelby, visible to the audience but virtually concealed beneath the scaffolding. Members of the nine-woman cast scrabble about the set with their rivets and welding tools, building new victory warships while their men fight overseas. The women sing as they work, combining multi-part harmonies with vocal percussion (oonka cheeka oonka cheeka) to replicate the sound of hammers hitting steel. They read letters from their husbands, quote the poet Lorca, and volley insults. They include among their ranks several southern transplants, including protagonist Gloria B. Cutting (Margo Hall), a well-read Latina immigrant with socialist leanings (Dena Martinez), a few working class white women, and even an aspiring jazz singer (the exceptionally talented Rebecca Frank). All coexist more or less peacefully in a workplace plagued by the same inequities as society at large.
This World spawned from the same team (composer Holm, dramatist Marcus Gardley, director Aaron Davidman), that produced the 2006 Shotgun play Love Is a Dream House in Lorin, which also documented an obscure piece of East Bay history. Young, Oakland-born playwright Gardley is ambitious in scope. In Lorin, he chronicled two hundred years in a South Berkeley neighborhood; in This World he revisits a period marked by productivity, population booms, and unions that demanded equal pay across racial lines. Gardley also looks at the more sinister moments in this story, such as the Port Chicago explosion that killed 320 servicemen, 202 of them African-American. In the play's second half he draws connections to modern-day Richmond, with its violence and economic blight. He abruptly fast-forwards to a Tent City in the Iron Triangle, where former shipbuilder Gloria G. Cutting, now in her eighties, hands out apple fritters to young protesters. The shift is a little disorienting and it's not entirely clear what point Gardley is trying to make (characters make vague references to the factory closures and economic decline after WWII, but that argument seems hazy, at best). It's the only extraneous part in an otherwise airtight script.
The rest of the play works beautifully. Shelby and the cast provide lovely interpretations of Holm's score, which imports some decidedly modern harmonies into an old work-song template. The women in this play have an ingrained rhythmic command, conveyed in their assembly line movements and the orchestrated sound of their tools. (Sometimes all you hear is a low hum, a bass ostinato, and the pang of a hammer.) Holm's music brings shape and texture to the story. More importantly, it helps bring out the music in Gardley's writing, which combines its didactic storyline with poetry, homiletic language, and even a bit of magical realism (in a myth about Richmond's "Wisdom Tree" that ties everything together). Coupled with Shelby and Davidman, these artists show incredible chemistry. Hopefully Shotgun will coral them again, to vivify another piece of East Bay lore.
Just as hard manual labor is grist for the music in This World, hardcore leisure inspired the soundtrack of 1967 "tribal love-rock" music Hair, now enjoying a revival with Alameda Civic Light Opera under the direction of Jeff Teague. Known for portraying the anxieties of Vietnam War-era adolescents in such infectiously peppy songs as "Aquarius," "Manchester, England," and "Let the Sunshine In," it's one of the most enduring Broadway musicals — definitely the only one that can make a happy romp-and-stomp out of things like masturbation, miscegenation, sodomy, drug use, poverty, Draft card burning, and a generational rift. For all its provocations, Hair couldn't quite withstand the test of time: It's definitely locked in a particular Greenwich Village counterculture that expired in the early 1970s. Yet, the themes have enough parallels with today's war in Iraq that Hair still resonates with modern audiences.
Loyal to the original script, ACLO's production combines bright, pastel-colored sets and era-appropriate costumes (bell bottoms, bandanas, India prints, baby dolls, tie-dye) with a wall-to-wall rock soundtrack in which every song bleeds into the next. The songs are immortal, and this ensemble gives them the heft and spirit they deserve — buoyed by stand-out vocalists Paulette Herring, as Dionne, and Ryan Rigazzi, as Claude. Yet, what distinguishes this rendition isn't the music per se (some of the singers are quite good, while others flub the high notes), but a slide projection in the background that shows footage of the Civil Rights movement, choppers in Vietnam, US soldiers, posters for Woodstock, and vintage album covers. There's a lot of getting-down-with-the-audience in this production, which opens with actors milling through Kofman auditorium in their odd hippie apparel, placing their hands on people's heads, transmitting auras and thanking everyone for showing up. Thus, they make a "be-in" of what's actually a pretty voyeuristic play (as underscored by the naked scene at the end of the first act). Not quite the Sixties, but it's still resonant nostalgia. "Let the Sunshine In" sounds as good as it ever did.
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