Being a white audience member at the musical “Living the Dreams of My Ancestors” at Riverwalk Theatre is a cultural exchange experience that might be the equivalent of African-American audiences seeing the smash Broadway hit “Legally Blonde.” The main difference would be that while “Blonde” completely lacks soul, “Ancestors” is all about soul.
The play incorporates soul dance and soul music in an attempt to preserve the souls of the members of the fictional Greater Fairview Baptist Church. The day of the church’s 150th anniversary finds the church on the brink of foreclosure and Pastor Joe (Guy Thomas) struggling with a crisis of faith. Meanwhile, his daughter and her friend learn about African-American history from Pastor Joe’s grandmother, Miss Sara (Suzanne Williams Minter).
“Dreams” is steeped in black Baptist church Sunday traditions. Some cross cultural barriers, like the women discussing supportive undergarments, wigs and uncomfortable shoes while the men compare lists of the top attributes of a good woman.
This play would be considered a community theater production on many levels. The sprawling cast is a community that was built from a community of churches. While it's sponsored by the Union Missionary Baptist Church, it took 10 other churches to pull off the production. It is also a show meant to reinforce the importance of community in supporting the needs of an individual.
What “Legally Blonde” and “Dreams” have in common is that they both rely on convoluted plots to string together a variety show of songs and dance. There are subplots in “Dreams” that include a woman’s struggle with breast cancer, a secret meeting in a park that doesn’t happen, an El Salvadorian orphan, a prodigal sister’s return home, a flirtatious church member who hits on married men, a ghost, and a mysterious envelope, among others.
All of these threads are interwoven with dance routines and songs, with a video slideshow of African-American and world history as a backdrop. Overall, it’s overkill. This is an ambitious production, one that would have benefitted from some streamlining.
Combining the intimate stories of a family with the crisis faced by an entire church with the history lesson is overwhelming. Any one of those themes could have served at the backbone of the production alone, and would have allowed for fuller development of and deeper investigation into one conflict.
Putting the messy plot aside, the quality of the singers and dancers is such that the musical interludes are a treat. The strongest performance belongs to Bishop Neal Roberson, who brings down the house at the end of Act One with the performance of his own composition, “Press My Way Through.” Unfortunately, nothing in the second act can live up to Roberson's standard. The closest thing in Act Two is Minter’s a capella rendition of Mahalia Jackson’s “Trouble of the World.”
Playwright and director Hope Hadley Rollins has created a work that is obviously a labor of love for the cast and creator alike. She chose quality songs, as well as choreography from the likes of Alvin Ailey. The power of the singing is worth the price of admission, but Rollins might consider refining the script for future productions. Less is more, except when it comes to Sunday hats.
"Living the Dreams of My Ancestors" repeats at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 5 and 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 6. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for children under 17. Call (517) 482-5700.