I consider myself one of the blessed ones when it comes to knowing my history. I grew up in a home where Black History was readily available on the shelves of my parents’ library, a library that we Meek kids utilized constantly for our reports at school, presentations during Black History Week (yes it was once only a week!) and just to argue a point with our friends, many of who knew nothing of our history. In addition to having a wealth of information at home, my parents made a point of exposing us to Black artists in all the arts disciplines. We experienced musical, theatrical, dance and literary performances regularly, so the tradition of attending live arts performances was instilled in me at a very early age.
I grew up seeing the Negro Ensemble Company, which set the stage for my theater snobbery, a condition for which I offer no apology! Their performances were a must see in my household. Douglas Turner Ward pretty much walked on water as far as I was concerned! So it is not without a strong basis of historical context that I am writing about Will Power’s latest piece “Stagger Lee’ and placing it among my all time favorite theater works. There are so many things about this piece that moved me starting with the narrative that continues the Black theater tradition of exploring the Black family seen in the seminal “Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry, continued in the powerful “No Place To Be Somebody” by Charles Gordone, twisted a bit but still clear in “Jelly’s Last Jam” by George C. Wolfe and totally explored in the 10 cycle plays of August Wilson. Power takes us through our historical battle to maintain dignity and continuity right up until the present. That he uses music as the vehicle to move us through the history seems particularly appropriate given the role music has played in keeping Black life vibrant and resilient. I have never been a big fan of musical theater, mainly because I don’t like trying to follow a sung story line. But the lyrics and music in “Stagger Lee’ are crisp and unpretentious, making it easy to keep track of the dialog so I never felt like I was being entertained solely for the purpose of entertainment. Each song pumped more urgency in the message and the actors performing them seemed to understand that. We had no showboating on their part, something that can easily happen in a musical presentation, but only a straightforward delivery of the lyric with the right amount of emotion for the scene portrayed.
I was privileged to have seen the first staged reading of “Stagger Lee” and unfortunately missed the second one but was eager to see how the work progressed. I am a sucker for the process involved in art-making so I love that Dallas had an opportunity to witness “The Making of Stagger Lee” because it allowed some of us to see Will Power’s process and appreciate his creative journey on this piece. I was familiar with Power’s previous work after being introduced to him when he presented as the keynote for a National Performance Network Annual Meeting many years ago. I was intrigued by the dynamic young speaker and made it a point to research his work. This is a playwright/poet/activist/lyricist who approaches storytelling with a truthfulness that is refreshing given the amount of light-weight stuff I’ve seen presented by too many Black writers. That he manages to convincingly compress 400 years of Black life into a 105-minute production is a testament to his commitment to telling our story with authenticity no matter how brief the storytelling session. The fact that he does it in song and dance without ever conjuring up a sense of trivialization speaks volumes about how seriously he takes his job as storyteller. An even more impressive fact is Will Power’s ability to take several Black folk stories, weave them together in such a way that never has us feeling like they aren’t every much a part of today’s narrative as conscious rap is, also speaks volumes about how deeply committed to telling the truth Will Power is in his “Stagger Lee” tale.
However, the thing that convinced me that “Stagger Lee” has the “stuff” needed to qualify as excellent theater is the fact that I cried in the second act, probably just as heartily as I laughed in the first act because the truth of Black Life as we see it being played out today was never so real as the scene of all those actors beating that wall of Black struggle. The final stroke of genius was that fleeting “Long Lost John” figure appearing as a hoodied youth with his hands raised in the now iconic gesture of today's #BlackLifeMatters movement; it took me out; I was done. Someone asked me if I thought that figure needed to be on stage longer and I told her absolutely not! The fact that he played like a side-eyed image that you weren’t quite sure you saw, you know, like that glimpse of someone as you’re walking down the street, out of the corner of your eye you think you spotted someone but when you turn to verify it, they’re not there? That’s what our current situation feels like to me. We made some progress over the 400 years, but in the time it takes for a glimpse, it can be gone.
I thank Will Power for “Stagger Lee”. I thank Patricia MacGregor for her clear-eyed direction. I thank Camille Brown for her brilliant choreography. I thank Kevin Moriarty for knowing this work needed to be mounted by a major Dallas theater and I thank all the actors in “Stagger Lee’ for bringing Will’s vision to such perfect fruition. A luta continua...