Review: ‘A Song for Coretta’ at WSU’s Studio Theatre raises awareness and lifts spirits

by Patty Nolan for Detroit Theater Examiner. 
Rating: 5 stars

The newest production by the Wayne State Theatre and Dance department is a poignant reminder that those people who stand for us as a symbol of something brave and poignant are still, first and foremost, people. While they may be best known for a specific cause, or movement, or personal sacrifice, their legacy is much bigger. Because even after they are gone, their example helps us figure out what is the right and compassionate thing to do.

A Song for Coretta at WSU's Studio Theatre runs through November 16, 2014.

Courtesy of WSU Theatre and Dance

It’s just one of the themes that comes through in Pearl Cleage’s tribute to Coretta Scott King, “Song for Coretta.” This uplifting production at WSU’s Studio Theatre – “underground at the Hilberry” – speaks volumes about how one life well-lived can touch so many other lives, bringing people together who seemingly have little in common.

Lest we forget, Coretta Scott King was much more than a civil rights activist. She was a young widow left to raise her four children alone while defending her husband’s legacy and keeping it alive. Set in Atlanta in 2006, “A Song for Coretta” chronicles the reflections of five distinctly different African American women as they stand in line on a cold winter night in front of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. They are waiting in order to pay their respects to the late Coretta Scott King – whose funeral will be the next day in her daughter’s church.

The first person we meet is an aspiring journalist, Zora Evans, played by Erian Williams. Named after the writer Zora Neal Hurston, Zora wonders why so many people who couldn’t possibly have known Mrs. King would stand for hours in the cold and rain. She decides to interview some of the last people in line in hopes of getting a story she can pitch to NPR.

The first person she interviews is Mrs. Helen Richards, played by Tayler Jones. Helen is an elderly woman who recalls meeting Mrs. King when Helen was just a child marching with her parents as part of the bus boycott. Helen finds that just talking about Coretta King makes her less angry toward the world – and the young people who don’t appreciate what the older generation fought for.

Next we meet Mona, portrayed by Maria Simpkins, a strong woman who earned her living as a sketch artist in New Orleans – until Hurricane Katrina took a way her home, her livelihood, and much more. She made the trek to Atlanta on a spur-of-the-moment notion that it was something she needed to do. Mona doesn’t want to be interviewed, but while they are waiting in line, agrees to do Helen’s portrait.

The fourth woman we meet, played by Kayla Mundy, is still only a girl. Keisha is a confused teenager who carries a secret and a question that she hopes Coretta King can answer. Keisha, who goes by the moniker “Lil’ Bit,” admits her ignorance of the Civil Rights movement, but she expresses an urgent need to learn one of the Freedom songs from that era.

The last person on the scene is an Army medic on leave – Gwen, played by Breon Canady. She has also been drawn to the church steps for reasons she can’t explain, but we eventually learn about her experience in Afghanistan – one that has made her question everything she once believed in.

As Zora tries to get each woman to reveal why they want to “say good bye” to Coretta Scott King, they come to realize the various needs, hurts and disillusionments that somehow connect them. Each woman has brought emptiness to the steps of the Ebenezer Baptist Church that they hope Coretta’s spirit can fill. And each has found an unexpected healing while waiting there in line.

This small moment of hope speaks to the ultimate legacy of Coretta Scott King. She was a woman who stood not just for civilrights, but for the very act of standing up for what’s right. And so these five women learn to stand up for themselves and for each other. In the end, they are empowered to raise their voices in an anthem – not Dr. King’s famous “We Shall Overcome” – but a song for Coretta – a song of faith that lights the darkness.

This WSU production is the vision of Billicia Hines, Assistant Professor and Director of the Black Theatre Program at WSU, in her first Studio Theatre effort. It’s a compelling ensemble performance that clicks because of the interplay between the five gifted actresses and the honesty with which they bring their characters to life. The production team also includes: Delaney O’Brien (Stage Manager), Sarah Bloch (Costume Designer), Jonathan Pigott (Scenic Designer), Peter Lawrence (Lighting Designer ), Aaron Beckius (Sound Designer), Madeline Schnorr (Properties Master) and Kevin Replinger (Publicist).

“A Song for Coretta” should be required viewing for students 16 and older. It runs through November 16 with performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. And Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $10 – $12 and are available by calling the theatre box office at (313) 577-2972, reserving them online, or by visiting the box office in the Hilberry Theatre located at 4743 Cass Avenue on the corner of Hancock.

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