Welcome Home, Marian Anderson
Directed by Jeffrey B. Thompson
Written by and starring Vanessa Shaw
RACCA’S Seaport Salon at the Shooting Star Theater
40 Peck Slip
Through August 17
Fri.-Sat. at 7:30pm, Sun. at 5 pm
$25; (917) 239-6690
By Jennifer O’Reilly
“Welcome Home, Marian Anderson” is a story of a powerful woman who pushed against society’s prejudices, braved circumstances which put her reputation and life in danger, and blazed a path for African American women to work and thrive in a time when the very idea of equality was revolutionary. Now in its second run at the Shooting Star Theater, the small production mounted by RACCA (Richard Allen Center for Culture and Art) does justice to this extraordinary woman, and entertains along the way.
The play begins with Anderson preparing to sing on Easter Sunday, 1939, in front of a crowd of 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial. In the opening monologue, we see the cluster of emotions that accompanies this momentous occasion and intuitively know that the journey to get there has been a difficult one. The play flashes back to a series of vignettes in Anderson’s life that confirm these suspicionsthe constant audition rejections due to her race, bad reviews and love affairs gone astray. From rejection at an all-white school to being described in a concert review as a “chocolate bar in an electric blue dress,” her road is fraught with discrimination, racism and sexism at every turn.
The most interesting sequences in “Welcome Home, Marian Anderson” occur when Anderson arrives in Europe, where she finally finds the indiscriminate acceptance that she craved in the United States. She tours through the European countryside, doing shows in Germany and Scandinavia, and flourishing under the diverse cultural influences of the time. However, as Hitler’s influence and campaign of ethnic cleansing infests Germany, Marian finds that her life is in peril due to her skin color. She flees to Zurich, but not before a harrowing encounter with a German border crossing guard, which tests both her courage and faith in God.
The play is written and performed by Vanessa Shaw, a Broadway veteran and classical singer. Shaw’s performance is understated and graceful, and truly captures the grace of the title character. Ivan Thomas solidly backs her up, weaving effortlessly through a variety of character parts from a Nazi soldier to Anderson’s flamboyant accompanist Billy King. “Welcome Home, Marian Anderson” is not a musical, but some of the songs that Marian Anderson made famous are woven throughout and performed movingly by Shaw.
“Welcome Home, Marian Anderson” doesn’t break new ground; the structure of the play is a simple narrative, the set is austere, and the dialogue unadorned. But the scaled-back simplicity of the story complements its central goal: to reacquaint or introduce mainstream audiences with a woman who deserves to be remembered.