Atlanta Journal Constitution

By Wendell Brock | Friday, February 16, 2007, 03:15 PM
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

THEATER REVIEW. Grade: B

Standing outside Ebenezer Baptist Church on a drizzly winter day, a serious-looking woman in a hat is being interviewed by an amateur radio journalist. The subject is no less a figure than Coretta Scott King, who lies in repose in a casket inside the chapel.

The enterprising reporter has found her money quote: “I remember how pretty she was and how good she smelled — like a birthday cake,” the lady tells the college student, recalling her childhood memory as it were a keepsake.

Thus begins Atlanta playwright Pearl Cleage’s “A Song for Coretta,” a lovely, image-soaked testament to the civil rights icon seen through the random eyes of a handful of fictional mourners who have lined up to say goodbye to the beloved Mrs. King.

Directed by Crystal A. Dickinson, the Spelman College world premiere celebrates this monumental spirit by putting forth the kind of characters who would have inspired her care and concern: a grieving New Orleans evacuee who sleeps in her car; a soldier traumatized by the horrors of Iraq; and a bright-eyed go-getter possessed of a dream — among others.

Though the play verges on unnecessary pathos near the end, it’s a momentary slip in an otherwise warm and infectious comedy that brims with wit, personality and life-affirming energy.

While the irrepressible Andrea Frye gets to strut her stuff here as matriarchal know-it-all Helen Richards, the actor has fierce competition in the wonderful Deandrea Crawford, who plays ridiculous street brat Keisha Cameron, a.k.a. “Li’l Bit.”

After all of Helen’s reverential Coretta memories, deftly extracted by wannabe NPR reporter Zora Evans (the delightfully perky Nishanthi Bailey), Keisha stirs the pot by suggesting that Mrs. King may not really be dead — just like Tupac (!). So much for gravitas. Once this stroller-pushing, potato chip-smacking calamity arrives on the scene, there’s no turning back. As Zora puts it, “I don’t know if NPR is ready for Keisha.”

Displaced by Katrina, Mona Lisa Martin (Jade Lambert-Smith) has taken to swigging bourbon and drawing caricatures for $5 a pop — $2 if you qualify for the “hurricane price.” It’s all pretty good fun until Mona Lisa and Gwen Johnson (a neighborhood kid who’s home from Iraq) start comparing war stories. Their shared experiences — signified by spoken-word-style catch phrases uttered in unison—Â feel overwrought and politically heavy-handed. (It’s also a little jolting to see Gwen make an 11th-hour entrance, just when you think the one act is nearing its end.)

For the most part, Dickinson gets solid performances from her mix of student and professional actors. But some of the technical aspects of the production, like the slides and text projected on either side of the auditorium during the opening sequence, feel a bit precious —Â as does the umbrella choreography at the top of the show.

These are small complaints, however.

The big news is that Cleage has created a joyful and affectionate tribute to one of the great women of our time — out of a single sliver of her biography. Coretta may be the guiding presence of this effort, but too much of her would be overwhelming. How generous and wise of Cleage to let these real characters have a say.

THE 411: 8 p.m. Saturday. 3 p.m. Sunday. $5-$10. Spelman College, Baldwin Burroughs Theatre, 350 Spelman Lane, Atlanta. 404-270-5488, www.spelman.edu.

THE VERDICT: Get in line.

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