The final dress rehearsal of Back O’ Town begins with a symphony of sound.
Huddled in a circle, the cast volunteers their voices in improvised harmony. Director Uchechukwu Onwunaka ’19 belts out a few bars, to the audible delight of her cast. Writer, musical director, and trombonist, Erin Reifler ’17, looks on from the pit band upstage.
On Friday, April 21st, Back O’ Town opened to Brown audiences as Musical Forum’s first ever original full-length musical. Reifler, who wrote first for MF’s Mini Musical Festival for two years, wrote the musical as her senior thesis. The show centers around the community of the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, dealing with the still-present aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Exploring the love, loss, trauma and fracture of the predominantly Black community, Back O’ Town reminds audiences of how institutional discrimination can exacerbate and outlast the effects of any natural disaster, asking us to “think critically,” as actor Maya Finoh put it, “about what populations are most vulnerable to environmental disasters — Black and Brown people, poor people, incarcerated people, and people experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity in general.”
First and foremost, however, Onwunaka hopes the show is a “tribute,” a “celebration” – of NOLA, of “Blackness and Black identity.”
We start with Katrina. “Were you watching?” the cast accuses, asks, invites, in the opening number. Maybe, maybe not – but now we certainly are.
Devonte Kavanaugh and Chloe Kibble
The play unfolds to reveal a tense courtship between the privileged, restless Eloise (played by a strikingly clear-voiced Chloe Kibble ’17) and Tomàs, a young man who is trying to shed the stigma of his former imprisonment (Devonte Kavanaugh ’19 does the character playful, patient justice). Eloise’s own prejudice is greatly compounded by that of her mother Marie, a still-mourning widow who shoos away Tomàs and his friends with an exhausted disdain undercut by fear. She is afraid of losing Eloise, of losing her aging, diabetic mother, Magnolia, of losing the family that is all she has. Marie’s fear and sadness comes to light in an early number called “Rita”; Kristin Ramcharan is captivating.
Eloise wants to escape her conservative household. She has dreams to bring music back into the streets of NOLA, specifically to Hank’s bar. The character is at once new and familiar; in an opening number she stands downstage with a broom and the requisite Musical Theater “I Want” song called “Just Another Tuesday” – she is even outfitted in the ingenue’s uniform white and blue, invoking Dorothy of Oz, Belle of Beauty and the Beast, Clara of Light in the Piazza, Alice of Alice in Wonderland. But she’s Black. Finally.
Writer Reifler is white. “Because of that fact,” she wrote, “I had to 1) do my research and 2) know my place in both the space of rehearsal and in the context of the script. My goal in writing this show was to provide the opportunity for Black artists, such as Uche and the cast, to create a Black space.”
The story, she says, arose from listening, and holding up a microphone to amplify what she found there. She articulated that she “wanted the story to center around Black womxn because they are the ones who have been carrying and continue to carry much of the emotional weight of this country’s racial divide.”
“It is so important,” wrote Onwunaka, “that the arts center marginalized narratives.”
“It’s one thing to try and bring to life an overlooked narrative from the ground up, but it’s another when the content hits home,” wrote actor Kibble. “I’ve learned so much along the way about the indescribable suffering of Black people who have been marked as disposable throughout the disaster.”
While Onwunaka is a Minority Peer Counselor, she says it was primarily her own experience as a Black woman that informed her work as a director. “We as a cast had really important and difficult conversations about race and its intersections with language, the prison industrial complex, etc — conversations that I know couldn’t have happened in a meaningful manner with a non-Black director facilitating,” she wrote. Black voices were at the center, every step of the way.
“As a Black woman and jazz enthusiast from the south, I’m happy I’ve had the chance to bring this character and this story to life, alongside an entirely Black cast full of beauty and talent,” Kibble said.
Brianna Cox and Kristin Ramcharan
On its feet, Back O’ Town is heavily reminiscent of other modern musicals. Tomàs and his friends (played by Jewel Brown, Julian McBride and Tafari Williams) comprise a rapping, rakish group that strongly evokes Hamilton’s Hamilton/Lafayette/Mulligan/Laurens squad; they play off one another in a group number: “One nation, under money… where if you’ve got the bees you’ve got the honey.”
Devonte Kavanaugh, Tafari Williams, Jewel Brown and Julian McBride
Reifler’s writing deftly plays with rhyme, both in song and out. One exchange between Tomàs and Eloise – “What’s your name if you please?” “….Eloise” – has all the sexiness and silliness of RENT’s “Mimi” riffs. Magnolia, Eloise’ grandmother and magnanimous matriarch, has a definite propensity for these rhymes, giving her character a whimsical wisdom.
Magnolia is played by Maya Finoh, one of many in the cast who does the daily work of contextualization. Finoh works as research assistant at Brown’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, and is involved with Students Against the Prison-Industrial Complex (SAPIC). The show deals closely with complex, humanized narratives of formerly incarcerated individuals. which Finoh calls “amazing.” They hope that audiences “question both the way people are permanently criminalized after getting incarcerated and what use prisons serve in our society.”
“I’m grateful to be in this show and play a character who holds my belief that no one in a community is disposable,” they write.
Devonte Kavanaugh and Maya Finoh
The cast brings much-sought new talent to Brown stages; many actors are first-time Brown theatre participants. Samia Nash and Taliq Tillman even visit to play the young Sabine and Remy, together singing one of the show’s best numbers, “Little House on Stilts.”
Samia Nash and Taliq Tillman
The music of Back O’ Town is playful (“Bah-Duh”), mournful (“The Memorial Blues”) and hopeful (“Louis’ Wonderful World”). So are the characters; so is the story.
As a young production, and, specifically, one that is still in workshop, Back O’ Town is walking on coltish legs. The powerful pit band occasionally drowns out the actors’ text and lyrics; some songs miss their marks – whether the trouble lies in the written melodies or the performed vocals, it isn’t quite clear – as do actors, sometimes seeming a bit adrift in the wide space of the stage. Heartfelt performances, however, do their best to buoy up vague moments.
Back O’ Town is a rich musical experience and a true landmark in Brown Theatre’s journey towards diverse, inclusive, inventive storytelling. In short, there’s much to say but much more to see: there are showings on Sunday, April 23 at 8p.m. and Monday, April 24 at 9p.m. Tickets are sold out online, but half will be released at the door 1 hour prior to each performance.
Photos via Danielle Perelman Photography