MetroStage’s Blackberry Daze adapted by novelist Ruth P. Watson and Director/Choreographer/Lyricist Thomas W. Jones II from Watson’s best-selling novel, and with a soulful, beautiful, and emotional score by William Knowles, is a compelling musical-mystery, and a romantic journey into the heart of the South.
Featuring 14 storytelling songs, and taking place in 1920 Jefferson County, Virginia, the story follows the challenges of three Black women, Mae Lou Parker (the always outstanding Roz White), her adopted daughter Carrie (Ayana Reed), and juke-joint singer Pearl Brown (the sensational and sexy Yvette Spears) as they grapple with the wiles of gambling womanizer Herman Camm (the fantastic TC Carson of the TV show Living Single fame).
The catalyst of the story was the tangled love-web of recent widow Mae Lou, and her new husband Herman, and Pearl and her husband, World War I Veteran Willie (Duane Richards II). The witness to all this madness was Mae Lou’s daughter Carrie. The cast energetically started off the show, singing-wise, with “Save The Sinner,” which featured the full vocal range of the actors and Jones’ brilliant choreography. White’s powerful vocals pushed “Take Me Glory” to a high, crowd-pleasing level.
As Herman romanced the married Pearl, “Layin’ It Down” simmered with sultriness and energy, under Pearl and Herman’s vocals. The dancing here, and throughout, stood out. The outstanding Carson created an incomparable chemistry with Spears (who is a real-life jazz vocalist who hails from New Orleans) in all their scenes. Pearl’s “Much Too Much” put Spears’ jazzy energy to good use. “Rhythm of the Blues” was a delightful duet featuring Spears and White.
Herman was the type of man who was “cockle-doodle-doodling in a whole lot of hen houses,” according to Carrie’s Aunt Ginny (Duyen Washington). Herman left two jealous spouses in the wake of his shenanigans: the cuckolded Willie and the long-suffering Mae Lou. Also riding on the wings of love was Carrie and Simon (Richards), a young man who was a prospect to play baseball for the Negro League’s Washington Grays.
After Herman turned his evil eye toward Carrie, with tragic consequences, “Palm of God” (“pray these tears will fall in the Palm of God”), was an awesome emotional apex by Reed, at a point in the story that Carrie had reached her breaking point.
The cast’s reprisal of “Save the Sinner” moved the story along. “Take It Back” by the cast was a song all about repentance; the song featured telling lyrics about the emotional state of the characters (as the show was a little light on exposition).
As Carrie sought the advice of her aunt Ginny,“Comfort You” by Washington and the cast, wonderfully matched the tonality of the scene. As the story progressed, it was clear that Herman was not long for this world. The list of suspects who would want him dead grew with each of Herman’s grins and sly looks. Nia Harris was impressive in her supporting, and I would have liked to seen Mr. Knowles writing a solo for her so we can learn her backstory.
After Carrie made her fateful decision, “Oh Holy Night” by Pearl, Mae Lou, and Ginny set a beautiful mood, in juxtaposition to the chaos of Carrie’s life. The reprise of “Save the Sinner” and “Fix Me Jesus,” both by the cast, emotionally wound the story down.“Pilgrim of Sorrow,” sung by Richards and Reed, ends the journey on a hopeful note.
The performances were excellent as the cast did a great job bringing to life a story and characters that could have been a lot better fleshed out.
Set Designers Carl Gudenius and Shuxing Fan did a wonderful job with the wooden-plank motif set and three screens, on which everything from school houses, churches and the outdoors were projected. Costume Designer Sigridur Johannesdottir did an impressive job with Richards’ Grays baseball and World War I uniforms; Herman’s sharp, 1920s-era suits and hats were GQ Magazine smooth. Together with Lighting Designer Alexander Keen and Sound Designer Gordon Nimmo-Smith, the look and sound of the show effectively evoked 1920 Jefferson County, Virginia.
Blackberry Daze is a splendid musical featuring powerful vocals. As it did for its Labor Day weekend opening, the show should have no problem filling the seats at Metro Stage to capacity.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.