Review: “Colors: Dream of the Masta” @ Marlene Boll Theatre

Review: “Colors: Dream of the Masta” @ Marlene Boll Theatre

Marlene Boll Theatre, Detroit
Through March 1, 2009

Review by Heather Bonner

alt textDarnell Ishmel and the Ishmel Sisters

More than a play or a concert, “COLORS: Dream of the MASTA” is an “experience.” Or at least, this is how it is explained in the show’s introduction, and the description isn’t far off. Somewhere between a gospel sermon and a Broadway musical, this “experience”—written, produced and directed by Rod Gailes OBC—is perfect for anyone looking for strong musical and physical performance, but may not be the ideal for someone seeking a clear message of racial acceptance. It is still a work in progress, to which musical numbers may be added or existing ones tweaked before the show is taken to New York, but it needs to make some changes if it is to achieve its goal of breaking down racial stereotypes and boundaries.

“COLORS: Dream of the MASTA” is a nearly constant medley of upbeat African- and African American-inspired music commenting on racial injustice and the need for acceptance among all of humankind. With musical direction by Darnell L. Ishmel, the show encompasses everything from traditional African music to spirituals from the days of slavery to today’s rap and hip hop. A cast of seven male and six female performers use dance and song to act out their heritage and history. It starts at the beginning of time, when there was only the One, and spans to the present, where selfishness and hatred have replaced many of the One’s original ideals.

Both acts open on an empty stage as actors scramble along the outside edges of the audience, whispering messages to the people at the end of each row. These enlightened viewers are then expected to pass the information down the row, like in that game kids loved to mess up in kindergarten. These messages attempt to break through the stereotypes of race and inequality by spreading knowledge rather than rumor. After the facts circulate the audience, the actors convene onstage and begin their performance, accompanied by a live band, mostly hidden offstage. The first act, which starts at the beginning of time, hits key events that bring us almost to the present. This is where the second act picks up before reflecting on everything we just learned from the past and pointing us toward a more promising and victorious future.

From the audience’s reaction, it was clear how empowering the “experience” was for many of its viewers. However, it was hard to separate the pre-show messages of equality filtering through the audience from the stories sung in the music of the show, which weren’t always as racially neutral as they would have needed to be to compliment those messages. Instead, some of the songs, though beautifully written and performed, continued to point the fingers society has been pointing for years. Whereas “Sarahsong,” a song about slavery, gave a fairly neutral, historical account of the African American struggle on the plantations of decades ago, “Shadow of the Cross,” a hauntingly melodic piece about the terrifying acts of the Ku Klux Klan, was a much more racially delineated piece that exonerated every race except Caucasians. A chanted list of racial slurs, meant to objectify all those targeted by the KKK, not only mentioned many races never again brought up in the show but also omitted any kind of Caucasian slur. Even Caucasians were targeted by the white supremacist group if they helped a member of a minority or outwardly supported the abolitionist movement. Granted, it’s hard to fit that multiple-word label into a fast-paced chant, but it effectively demonized an entire population of people, some of whom should have been celebrated for their bravery with the other minority leaders. And the reference to the other races felt more token than genuine, simply because their stories were not even remotely being told throughout the rest of the show. This doesn’t break down the idea of racial separation; it exacerbates it and makes the same old over-generalizations the show is theoretically attempting to destroy.

But it is still a captivating performance. The stage is devoid of set pieces, except for the cyclone on the back wall, which is lit with various colors to create a background that enhances each moment emotionally, yet unobtrusively. This allows for the actors and actresses to be the main attraction and there is nothing to detract from their messages or their performances, which are fantastic.

What does interrupt the flow of the performance are a few of the musical transitions, which are occasionally abrupt. “Freedom Takes a While,” a spiritual-like song, is immediately followed by “Drapetomania,” which is entirely dissimilar with its jerky and modernistic flavor. There is a comparable jarring switch in tempo between “Revolution Hurts” and “Ghetto Heaven.” Because most of the songs lead into the next without a break, these sharp changes in style feel somewhat clumsy—but they do grab the audience’s attention.

“COLORS: Dream of the MASTA” is inspirational in many ways, especially in an artistic sense for those who enjoy well-written music and numerous styles of dance. However, it is not necessarily the ultimate “experience” for a mental breakthrough in improving race relations and relieving inequality among humankind—yet.

“COLORS: Dream of the MASTA” runs February 13 – March 1 at the Marlene Boll Theatre at 1401 Broadway in the YMCA in Detroit. Tickets are $20. Show times are 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 4 p.m. on Sundays. See www.y-artsdetroit.org for more information.