Singin' Wid a Sword in Ma Han'
nytheatre.com review by Lynn Berg
August 16, 2009
A woman walks onto an empty black stage in bare feet and says warmly, "Welcome." She looks at the audience expectantly and repeats "Welcome." We respond openly to her genuine invitation and Singin' Wid A Sword In Ma Han' begins. Vienna Carroll, the woman in the bare feet, simple dress, and head wrap, is also the playwright of this play of spirituals about the Underground Railroad and she effectively enraptures us with her character's voice and story. I found myself exiting the theatre singing the title song on the street.
That is one of the great achievements of a play full of great and simple achievements. It drew me into the kind of story I was ready to approach with typical, distant respect. I once had to sing a spiritual with its slave pronunciation intact for a voice class. As a white agnostic non-singer it was an uncomfortable experience. Greengurl Productions' Singin' Wid A Sword in Ma Han' has the opposite effect. It's funny, warm, touching, and engaging. The characters are not only believable and affecting but we connect with them and their story of love and self-determination in a personal way. And the actors fill the spirituals they sing with their characters' lives and breadth of experience, making the songs resonate through the audience.
Singin' Wid A Sword in Ma Han' is the love story of Topper and Nate, two slaves who risk their lives by running away because they want to be married. They take Nate's family on an odyssey through a hostile land full of peril and relief where they're never sure whom they can trust, even fellow slaves. It's a fascinating account in which I learned more about the Slave Grapevine and the measures some went through to determine their fate. Their spirituals provide strength and hope but the end of the play is smartly uncertain.
Carroll and Ade Herbert, both gifted and charming performers, carry us away with them on their journey as Topper and Nate. They're aided by the talented Dawn Bennett, Dawn Murphy, and Omar Perez who give persuasive life to their various characters. Each actor has singular moments, Perez portraying power in quiet ways, Bennett substantial and real, and Murphy particularly good as Davey, one of various portrayals of conductors on the Underground Railroad. The songs receive mighty accompaniment from Linda Murdaugh's voice and hand percussion. All the performers have beautiful, resonant voices that give the spirituals woven into the story power, humor, sadness, and hope.
The show is simply and effectively directed by Keith E. Johnston, bringing the production together using the limitations of FringeNYC as strengths. Johnston shrewdly achieves more with less, letting the performers tell this story of love, faith and freedom with their voices and bodies skillfully lit by Peter Leonard. Singin' Wid A Sword in Ma Han' is fine storytelling transporting the audience with an inspirational American tale and art form.