The Clothesline Muse, a multimedia production that premiered in 2014, returned to the Triangle area on March 18th at the Cary Arts Center. The one-act performance was originally conceived by African dance pioneer Dr. Kariamu Welsh and written by her, six-time Grammy nominated jazz singer/writer/producer Nnenna Freelon, and Freelon’s daughter (and Welsh’s daughter-in-law), the artist Maya Freelon Asante.
The multigenerational story examines the fragile relationships between women; and it also highlights the history of the main character, Grandma Blu (Nnenna Freelon), a laundress, and her granddaughter, Mary Mack (portrayed by Tyanna West), a budding screenwriter focused on the future. The play encourages discussion between grandparents-parents-children about “what happened at the clothesline.” Currently on tour, the play combines true historic events of the past (Atlanta’s Washerwomen Strike in 1881) and a discussion of the present in order to keep an eye on what is to come. That multilayered plot, combined with a multimedia production, creates a spellbinding, powerful, and beautiful story that works on many levels and is so well done that it deserves a much larger venue than the cozy and beautiful 425-seat theater at the Cary Arts Center. It is truly the best show this reviewer has attended during this theater season!
The stage is set with Maya Freelon Asante’s tissue-like artwork hanging as backdrops; and throughout the play, the artwork is incorporated into the choreography and underlines the story, as Grandma Blu shares her life and the history of what she does with a granddaughter who is totally wrapped up in her own life. During one particularly moving piece of choreography, the dancers crumple tissue paper to punctuate their movements and provide a rhythm for Nnenna Freelon’s music.
Though the stage is the first impact upon the audience, one metaphor that repeats throughout the show arrives as the show opens: the Ancient Washer Woman (Sakarah Hall-Edge). She glides across stage, a pile of laundry balanced on her head, her back straight, her feet bare, her face resolved. She is a constant reminder of the past, as well as of Grandma Blu’s own mortality. A ghostly apparition, she brings the past into the present, reminding the women of their heritage and their pride.
But Grandma Blu is the star of the show, and the story of her life is the one upon which the tale revolves. She is a positive character, a woman who has lived a long life and is grateful for the role she has played, yet under the positive, pride manner beats the heart of a wise woman who is always conscious of the footprints of others who have gone before her. What elevates her story is the magnificently controlled and masterful voice of Nnenna Freelon. When she sings “There Is a Balm in Gilead” halfway through the evening’s performance, there is an audible gasp from the audience. Another moment of note is the sensual song, “How to Iron a Gentleman’s Shirt,” which is accompanied by a stunning solo interpretation danced by lead dancer Stephanie Padilla.
Grandma Blu shares her story with her granddaughter, Mary Mack, who is determined to eradicate the past, seeing it as nothing but a collection of items that represent a “hoarder’s collection” to her. Tyanna West’s effervescence is perfect for her character. Her voice is a bit raspy and young, which is both a strength and a disadvantage. She is spunky and a perfect foil for her grandmother’s smooth and soulful style, but there are times that West’s voice breaks and goes either flat or sharp; and one wants more power from her vocal range.
As Grandma Blu weaves her stories, Mary MAck’s understanding of the past begins to empower her; and she becomes the realization of what she dreams. Her understanding of the impact of the story informs her own work as a screenwriter and helps her to mature.
One of the strengths of this show is the striking choreography created by Dr. Kariamu Welsh. Each song is more impactful because of the dancers who translate the music into interpretative dance inspired by the characters’ African heritage. The dancers (Jessica Featherson, Stephanie Padilla, Matia Johnson, and Sakarah Hall-Edge) interact with the characters and bring an element to the story that becomes tender or dynamic, humorous or thoughtful, depending upon the story’s movement. Dressed in all white, the dancers become actors and without them, the performance, while still powerful, would be completely different.
In short, this all-woman production is far more than a simply told generational story. It is a celebration of the arts, a saga about family, a deftly detailed and delivered history of a place and time and type of work that is becoming extinct. The clothesline that is the central metaphor that links the generations transcends the backyard clothesline, over which women had conversations for generations, and becomes the Internet clothesline (i.e., Facebook) that continues the discussion. But there is nothing like that face-to-face conversation that finally brings Mary Mack to an understanding of her grandmother’s life and that piece of history around the women who made their living washing other people’s clothes. It is an intimate story, perfectly told in an intimate setting, but deserving of a much larger venue.
SECOND OPINION: March 20th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Andrea McKerlie Luke: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=7893; March 16th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/the-clothesline-muse/Event?oid=4775870; and Feb. 19th Pittston, PA WVIA-FM interview with Nnenna Freelon, conducted by Erika Funke https://soundcloud.com/wvia-public-media/nnenna-freelon-february-19-2016?in=wvia-public-media/sets/artscene-1. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the March 20th Triangle Review review by Martha Keravuori and Chuck Galle, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2016/03/the-clothesline-muse-is-a-great-show-and-jazz-singer-nnenna-freelon-sparkles-as-grandma-blu/.)
THE CLOTHESLINE MUSE (Cary Arts Center, March 19).
VIDEO PREVIEWS: http://theclotheslinemuse.com/video/.
THE TOUR: http://theclotheslinemuse.com/tour/.
PRESENTER: http://www.townofcary.org/departments/parks__recreation___cultural_resources/facilities/cultural_arts_centers/caryartscenter.htm, https://www.facebook.com/pages/Cary-Arts-Center/235735853122351, and http://www.caryplayers.org/cary-arts-center/.
MARVELOUS MUSIC MAINSTAGE SERIES: http://www.townofcary.org/Departments/Parks__Recreation___Cultural_Resources/events/concerts/marvelousmusic/mmmainstageseries.htm.
The Clothesline Muse (devised theatrical production): http://theclotheslinemuse.com/ (official website), https://www.facebook.com/clotheslinemuse/ (Facebook page).
Nnenna Freelon (Durham, NC jazz singer and actress): http://nnenna.com/ (official website), https://www.facebook.com/nnenna.freelon (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/officialnnenna (Twitter page), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nnenna_Freelon (Wikipedia).
[RUN HAS CONCLUDED.]
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater, music, and dance reviews. She is also a writer, editor, writing coach at Reno’s Literary Services of Durham. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/. To read more of her writings, click http://dawnrenolangley.blogspot.com/ and http://poetryandgardening.blogspot.com/.