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Theatre Review (LA): The Women of Brewster Place by Tim Acito

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The Women of Brewster Place was the first novel by American Gloria Naylor. In 1989 it was presented as a miniseries and then in 1990 as an ongoing series produced by Oprah Winfrey and her Harpo Productions. The story has since been made into a musical by Tim Acita and first presented at the Alliance Theatre in Washington D.C. The Women of Brewster Place is having its West Coast premiere at The Celebration Theatre in Hollywood, and audiences seem to love it.

The story of these women is told in a series of interlocking tales that lead up to a group scene that is about community. These stories are hard-hitting, tender, and funny, and tragic. Brewster Place is a ghetto in a 1970s housing project separated from the rest of the city by a wall. These women are here because they can’t, yet, find a way to escape, or figure they can hide their individual stories within the community. Of course, that is not the way things turn out and everyone is mixed up in everyone else’s business.

There is earth mother Mattie, who is the oldest resident and the one they turn to when there is trouble. She tries to stay to herself but the others just won’t let her. We find out she has a son who has gone away and she is waiting for him to return. Kim Yarbrough makes a wonderful Mattie with her sympathetic nature and resonant voice. Another renter is Etta Mae (beautiful Cheridah Best) a sexy but loose woman of the project. She must put up with the bitchy, intrusive, and meddling neighbors (the very funny Lisa Thorpe and Charlene Modeste.) These old ladies also happen to be extremely homophobic, which doesn’t help the young lesbian couple (Christine Horn and Erica Ash). The relationship between the two lesbian women becomes a central focus of the second half of the play. The first act deals mainly with the trials of a young mother (movingly played by Julanne Childi Hill) who tries, unsuccessfully, to deal with her many children. In the end the inhabitants join together to act as a community to affect change,

Musical highlights include a hysterical song called “Smile” sung by Christine Horn in which she tries to put on a brave face in teaching a class in this ghetto. Kim Yarbrough sings a gorgeous lament at the end of Act One called “This Ain’t A Prayer”. Another great song is "Everybody Wants Something,"  a hard-hitting song about the women being exploited. For the most part the score by Tim Acito is beautifully played by a five-piece combo and well sung by all the ladies. (A slight quibble, sometimes there are too many words the composer tries to fit in to match the music.) The lively choreography by Ameenah Kaplan kept things moving. The precise direction by Michael Mathews utilizes the tight space very well.

This is a wonderful musical, full of hope and courage. It is a response to the Reagan era experiments where they tried to keep the “undesirables” away from the white population. I’m sure this will have a future, perhaps even on Broadway. The Women of Brewster Place plays at the Celebration Theatre until June 6th

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About Robert Machray