The Clothesline Muse Was a Great Show, and Jazz Singer Nnenna Freelon Sparkled as Grandma Blu

Cary Arts Center presented <em>The Clothesline Muse</em>, starring Nnenna Freelon (center), at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 18th, as part of its 2015-16 Marvelous Music Mainstage Series
Cary Arts Center presented The Clothesline Muse, starring Nnenna Freelon (center), at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 18th, as part of its 2015-16 Marvelous Music Mainstage Series

We experienced Nnenna Freelon last year at this time at a fundraiser for the Community Music School in Raleigh, which provides children from low-income families with music lessons from professional instructors. So, when we discovered she was one of the creators of a show being performed one time only at the Cary Arts Center, we jumped at the opportunity to review her. Did we ever choose right!

The Clothesline Muse is a collaboration of Freelon with her daughter, Maya Freelon Asante, and her daughter’s mother-in-law, Dr. Kariamu Welsh. In this case, the collaboration includes directing the show. They have conjured up a music, dance, sculptural, and poetic feast for the senses.

Draped in gaily colored tissue paper in cloth-like shapes, accented and embellished with interesting projections, and partially told in dance, this is the story of a launder-woman in her final years, whose contemporary granddaughter must help her move from her house, which has been sold. The granddaughter has an important life lesson to learn as she handles and passes through the old woman’s possessions, each of which contains a story relevant even today.

A full-house audience, primarily mature and of mixed ethnicities, resonated with the connection the story makes with the clothesline of old and the being “on-line” of current existence. Grandmothers love to tell the inspiring stories of their earlier years, in hopes the younger generation will retain the family lore, and discover the strength and tenacity of their forebears, to know that such values are their heritage.

The form of the show is kind of opera-like, interspersed with some verbal exchange and a lot of dance — dance more choreo-sculpted than choreographed — with the flowing material of the costumes integrated as dance components. The dialogue and lyrics are all the stuff of poetry, rich with metaphor and innuendo.

Nnenna Freelon is a Durham, NC jazz singer and actress
Nnenna Freelon is a Durham, NC jazz singer and actress

Playing Grandma Blu, Nnenna Freelon postures up a lively little old lady, full of spunk and experiences and memories, and love of her hardworking life. Grandma Blu is proud of her work and proud that she’s best at it in three counties. Her crooning in the scene “Love Online,” of the song “How to Iron a Gentleman’s Shirt” is sensual, downright sexual, and hilarious. Also outstanding is her rendition of “Dear Sir,” an 1881 letter to Atlanta’s Mayor, bitingly advising the business and political community that the washerwomen had become united and were prepared to go on strike unless their demands for better wages and working conditions were met. This constituted a piece of history that your reporters had not been previously unaware of, especially the fact that washer-women won!

Grandma Blu’s granddaughter, Mary Mack Douglas, is portrayed by Tyanna West as a thoroughly modern grad student, with earbuds and her eye on the future — never realizing that, for many of us, now is the future. In her singing of “Who Am I?” we find her becoming willing to “carry the basket of knowledge of her family history”, as one reviewer put it, and that she can be anything she wants to be.

The dancers, who seemed to be borne of sheets flapping in the wind, moved as from labors of laundering, scrubbing, and hanging, and crashing of weariness at days end. They evoked joy in living and the pain of loss; and they moved in synchrony and apart, vitally and sensuously, and hearkening of deep African culture. Dr. Kariamu Welsh has built complex and captivating maneuvers to express the physicality of the stories.

Magnificent lighting and projections were designed and managed by Ross Coleman and Joseph Amodei. The excellent costumes were designed by Mika Hashanee Eubanks.

There was rap-style music production by SAMMUS, Pierce Freelon, and Stephen Levitin. “Apple Juice Kid” was upbeat and always an essential component of the storytelling.

This is a great show. We hope the “Muse of the Clothesline” will come to the area again.

SECOND OPINION: March 20th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Andrea McKerlie Luke:; March 16th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods:; and Feb. 19th Pittston, PA WVIA-FM interview with Nnenna Freelon, conducted by Erika Funke (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the March 20th Triangle Review review by Dawn Reno Langley, click

THE CLOTHESLINE MUSE (Cary Arts Center, March 19).







The Clothesline Muse (devised theatrical production): (official website), (Facebook page).

Nnenna Freelon (Durham, NC jazz singer and actress): (official website), (Facebook page), (Twitter page), and (Wikipedia).



Martha Keravuori is a life-long theater artist — an actress, director, and stage manager — in North Carolina, around the country, and overseas. She has a theater degree from UNC-Greensboro, and has been active in the arts in Raleigh for the past 40 years. Martha is the retired executive director of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. Chuck Galle returned to Raleigh last year after a 17-year absence. He was active in community theater for many years, and directed the troupe of maximum-security inmates at Raleigh’s Central Prison known as the Central Prison Players. In New England, he performed on stage, on TV, and in films. He is the author of Stories I Never Told My Daughter — An Odyssey, which can be ordered on his website: Chuck Galle and Martha Keravuori review theater for Boom! Magazine of Cary. Click here to read more of their reviews for Boom! Magazine and here to read more of their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.