Theater » Theater Feature


Memphis theaters hit hard with Once, Sunset Baby, Fences.



I've seen a number of inspiring shows, but it's not often that a piece of musical theater literally inspires me to leave the theater and do something. But after seeing Once, I went straight home and fixed the badly buzzing pickguard on a neglected old mandolin that's hung untouched on my bedroom wall for a year or more, just waiting for a bit of TLC. Then, because the sad Irish ballad of a show I'd just watched looked like so much fun to perform, I sat down and learned some sad Irish ballads.

Once gets its hooks in deep during the pre-show. While the audience is still being seated, the full cast of actor-musicians launch into a fiddle-sawing, guitar-picking, mandolin-strumming, box-banging, foot-stomping, and tin whistle-tooting jam session. When showtime finally rolls around, the joyful music practically gives birth to the storytelling.

Once introduces viewers to a depressed young songwriter who lives with his old Da above the shop where they make Hoovers that don't suck anymore suck proper again. His girl's left him for New York, and nobody's listening to his music except for the struggling Czech immigrant who becomes his muse and chief motivator. It's an inside out romance, funny, bittersweet, and lovingly staged.

Conor Finnerty-Esmonde and Lizzy Hinton charm as the leading Guy and Girl, but this is an ensemble show where every actor's a musician and every musician an actor. The secret star is a simple wooden stage that looks like it was designed to maximize the warm sound of acoustic instruments and lightly amplified human voices. It's like listening to a guitar played inside a bigger guitar. And when it's all over, final bows are taken, and the last note's faded away, if you don't have a mandolin to go home and fix, it may inspire you to rush out and buy one. You've been warned.

Sunset Baby at The Hattiloo

Want to see one really great performance? Oh, baby. Decked out in fuck-me boots and the war paint of a professional trickster who lures Johns into her car in order to rob them, Morgan Watson's Nina is as hard and multifaceted as a cut diamond. It's hard to eclipse actors as strong as TC Sharp and Emmanuel McKinney, who hold their own as Nina's long-absent father and gangsta boyfriend, respectively. But whether she's rolling her eyes and saying "I love you" or holding forth on what it really means to be "children of the revolution," it's hard to take your eyes off Watson long enough to look at anybody else.

Dominique Morisseau's play Sunset Baby is set just after the death of Nina's mom, a one-time Civil Rights icon named Ashanti X who struggled economically, becoming a crack addict in later years. Now that she's dead, her papers are worth more than she ever was, and Nina's long-estranged father shows up looking to get back into his daughter's life. And for letters Ashanti X had written to him while he was in prison.

Sunset Baby is a GenX story looking at lives shaped by a stalled Civil Rights movement, when protest gave way to politics and old heroes became fringe figures and outlaws. It's a little play telling a big story.

Sunset Baby is at the Hattiloo through February 11th.


No matter how overexposed Fences may be relative to the nine other great plays in August Wilson's century-spanning Pittsburgh cycle, Theatre Memphis' revival is so perfectly cast it's worth checking out even if you own the movie and watch it every day.

Wilson's characters are pressed to create their own mythology in order to survive in a world they are constantly reminded they didn't create. To that end, Fences' Troy Maxson is a former Negro League star, accidental labor leader, and myth-maker of the first order. As Troy, Willis Green blows through the show like a category-5 hurricane. He's supported by a strong cast that includes Jessica Johnson as Troy's wife Rose and Justin Raynard Hicks in an unforgettable turn as brother Gabe, a combat veteran whose head wound left him in a state of perpetual childhood.

Fences is at Theatre Memphis through February 4th.

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