Story: From roots in Africa through the journey across the Atlantic Ocean in slave ships to slavery in the American South and from the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century to contemporary times, Crossin’ Over presents the African-American experience through the music of its culture. The two-act musical features traditional West African drumming as well as hymns, psalms and gospel standards.
Highlights: Conceived by Black Rep founder and producing director Ron Himes in 2007, a revival of this rollicking and at times soberly dramatic musical is enjoying an energized, expertrendition that closes The Black Rep’s 40th anniversary season.
Other Info: Crossin’ Over is filled with catchy, upbeat numbers that rock the house as well as soulful, mournful dirges which underscore the inhumanity of the plight of African natives kidnapped from their native lands and sold into a lifetime of slavery in America. Himes has updated his original piece here and there, and it seems more dramatic particularly in the first of its two acts than memory serves for the previous incarnation.
What’s certain is that Crossin’ Over features more than 60 tunes which showcase an impressive range of genres including gospel, blues, hymns and percussive riffs that make the Emerson Performance Center at Harris-Stowe State University a lively, hand-clapping, foot-stomping revival in more ways than one.
Himes has brought back four members of the original ensemble for this two-act extravaganza, including J. Samuel Davis, Herman Gordon, Kelvin Roston Jr. and Leah Stewart. Joining them on stage are revue newcomers Micheal Lowe, Amber Rose, Maureen L. Williams and Venezia Manuel, the latter who serves as the group’s primary dancer on numerous numbers.
All of them contribute substantially to the show, which under Himes’ direction maintains a fluid, steady pace through its two hours and 45 minutes of performance time. The players perform primarily in front of a wooden trapezoid set designed by Jim Burwinkel, with dancer Manuel often showcasing various moves on the top tier above the singers on the main floor of the regular stage.
Behind the set are a number of posters which are dropped during the show, ranging from masks to photos to a shocking advertisement for the sale of “prime, healthy Negroes” in the South. Late lighting designer Mark Wilson masterfully illuminates various scenes to highlight dramatic moments with a palette of arresting hues. Daryl Harris creates a cornucopia of bright, festive costumes in the African numbers as well as colorful choir garb for gospel tunes and elegant threads with a nightclub appeal.
Reggie Davis’ sound design accentuates several stunningly dramatic moments, whether the slave era in Act I or the Civil Rights movement in Act II, and Kate Slovinski provides props. Supporting all of the activity on stage are off-stage musical director Charles Creath at the keyboards with William “Rainey” Rainer on bass and drummer Jeffrey Booman Burks, keeping the accompaniment at a proper level which supports but does not overwhelm the singers.
At the start of the show percussionists Donald Ray, Jackie Sharp and Atum Jones impressively beat drums to ancient West African rhythms as they set the stage for the musical depictions of high and low times that follow.
Each of the players has a chance to shine in solo efforts and they make the most of them, led by Rose, whose soaring soprano voice seems about to break any crystal or glass that might be within earshot of her spectacular range, as she demonstrates on Lord I Want to Be a Christian, Oh, Freedom and others.
Himes divides the music into three segments in each act, starting with an Opening Medley along with an African Suite and the Captivity Suite, which is sub-titled Crossing Over in Slave Ships for its first part and Auction Block/Fields for the second.
The second act begins with an eight-tune medley in the Thomas Dorsey Suite, named for the “father of black gospel music,” Thomas Andrew Dorsey, who served for more than 40 years as music director of the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago in the mid-20th century. That segment is followed by the Civil Rights Suite and the show concludes with a Contemporary Suite which begins with Oh Happy Day.
Gordon displays his big, booming voice on Go Down Moses, e.g., while Davis leads the troupe on the soulful Kakilambe number in the African Suite as well as a stirring version of Amazing Grace in the Captivity Suite. Roston wails the lament, Keep Me From Sinking Down, as well as belting out the stern words of This Old Hammer in the Captivity Suite.
Stewart leads the ensemble for It’s Gonna Rain/Didn’t It Rain in the Dorsey Suite while Williams showcases her vocal abilities on tunes including Hold on Just a Little While Longer, Kum Ba Ya and Precious Lord.
Manuel displays her lithe, limber body on several graceful numbers choreographed by her and Mama Lisa Gage, usually on the top of the trapezoid construction but occasionally on the main performance floor of the stage. Her movements accentuate the soulful numbers sung so eloquently by the cast.
Crossin’ Over seems much more dramatic in the first act than in the second, but the musical performances are engaging throughout. This reprise is a lively and fitting tribute to the skills and talents of this entourage as well as a tuneful testament to the African-American experience from one continent to another over the centuries.
Musical: Crossin’ Over
Company: The Black Rep
Venue: Emerson Performance Center, Harris-Stowe State University, 3026 Laclede Ave.
Dates: June 1-4, 8-11, 15-18
Tickets: $35-$40; contact 534-3810 or www.theblackrep.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Phillip Hamer