Almeida Theatre, London – until 27 May 2023
After 1930s Donegal at the NT the day before, Dancing at Lughnasa portraying a group of women meeting stress and poverty with dancing vitality, here we were a few postcodes away, in 1964 South Carolina – watching another group of women equally driven to manic dancing. With men important, but incidental to their energy. In this case the dancing was in a more revivalist style, chanting and imploring round a black Madonna statue at another turning point in history. It was America’s desegregating, hard-fought-for Civil Rights Act that year, and we heard President LBJ challenging America’s “negroes” all to register and vote.
Not made easy, that, not in Southern states with resentful whites. Director Whitney White makes sure its opening is arresting: poor bullied Lily – who’s white – is encouraged by the strong tough black maid Rosaleen, and accompanies her to try and vote. Abiona Omonua’s immense, wild voice vowing to “Sign my name!” and using the word VOTE is tremendous: indeed the music throughout is operatic in its frequency and power.
But there’s a moment of shocking slo-mo racial violence against the black woman on the way, and her arrest makes the pair run away together from the brutality. They find a fairytale-half-real refuge in a cultish black women’s group which makes and sells honey under its leader August and her companions June and May and the “daughters of Mary”. Here the runaways learn beekeeping and solidarity.
Its always an exhilarating thing when a show gets you going early with its musical energy and defiant storytelling, but then loses you for a while (what IS this unsettling hysterical ritual round the statue of the black Virgin Mary?) but then strikingly, memorably, redeems itself until you want to cheer it. The playwright Lynn Nottage – double Pulitzer winner – has plunged here into a full musical version of Sue Monk Kidd’s rather odd novel. The lyrics (excellent ones) are by Susan Birkenhead and the music by Duncan Sheik. It’s bluesy, a bit gospelly, sometimes rock, all wonderfully sung. As the characters develop the songs offer every nuance from romantic gentleness to the immense defiant ‘Hold this House Together!’ anthem near the end.
That development is particularly fine in Eleanor Worthington-Cox as Lily. She is cowering to her terrible father at first, wet and hopeless compared to her fiery maid and friend, damaged by the belief she killed her mother (an unsatisfying melodrama, finally unveiled rather late) . But she grows before your eyes as she learns about the bees, handles the sweet honeycomb racks with ever more confidence as she overcomes her fear of them and of life, and falls for Noah Thomas as Zack, the black helper.
An attraction which , this being 1964 in the American South, gives us an importantly ugly moment. Police stop them in the car and assume he is “bothering”her. Zach survives the arrest, jus, but Emmett Till’s fate is on all our minds. The impossibility of such relationships is slyly underlined in a big wild number “Jack Palance”, about the famous occasion in Tuscaloosa when riots were caused by the actor being rumoured – only rumoured – to have a black girlfriend.
As I say, the show absolutely got me back after a brief few minutes wondering, and drew me right in to the strong humanity of the female group. There are men: Mark Meadows as Lily’s truly horrible father is genuinely frightening (and genuinely, in the end frightened as they surround him). That men are not all beasts is beautifully shown by decent Zach and by Tarinn Callender as the (white) suppliant Neil who keeps proposing to one of the honey-women, June. Great street-dances from both chaps, by the way.
box office almeida.co.uk to 27 May.