Photos by Francois Bonneau
"I never thought that the weak damsel waiting for Prince Charming really spoke to us as African American women." So Dr. Dorothy Marcic was told, and this sentiment formed the basis of what would eventually become Sistas: the Musical.
Marcic has written a revolutionary little musical, and even in its fourth year Sistas continues to shine. The production follows three sisters, one daughter and one sister-in-law as they prepare to bury the matriarch of their family. As the women recall their shared past with their grandmother and beyond, they take on the history of African American women as well through popular music spanning from Billie Holiday to Beyonce. Sistas is an intelligent feminist critique of modern times told through relatable characters, written for the women whose story it tells.
This musical does not take place in an alternate reality in which people simply burst into song to express their feelings. Instead, as the sisters clean out their grandmother's attic, they sing their way through history trying to choose a song to perform at the funeral, Swiffers as improvised microphone stands and all. And this gregarious family isn't alone belting their hearts out onstage--the audience is encouraged to sing along, and does.
Sistas is a jukebox musical, but rather than taking on the works of one artist or genre, this show travels through the history of black female musicians. Audiences may not be familiar with some of the older songs, but other crowd-pleasers like the rollicking '60s soul medley will have you wanting to dance up to the stage.
As much fun as this musical is, it also does not shy away from confronting big issues that affect many black women's lives head on, from controlling relationships and moving on after a husband's death to sexual assault. Instead, Sistas becomes all about finding joy amidst sadness and misfortune through music. The device of one college professor sister with a doctoral education in the history of African American women, Simone, is used well, elevating the dialogue about "naming and framing the pain" on a larger scale than just their own family without becoming gimmicky or overly academic.
The five women onstage are a solid ensemble even as they portray drastically different characters. There's self-confident single mom Simone (Aurelia Williams), sassy and confrontational Roberta (Jennifer Fouche) and sanctimonious but sincere Gloria (Robyn Payne). Amy Goldberger as Heather plays the sole white woman who married into the family with an appropriate degree of awkwardness, finding deeper meaning in the dialogue between the traditional feminism of Heather's mother and the lived experience of marginalized black women within the movement.
But the unexpected star of the production is Danea Osseni as Simone's daughter Tamika, whose breathtaking performance of break-up anthem "Tyrone" leaves both her aunts and the audience singing and cheering along. And as the older women teach Tamika about her ancestry, we learn along with her, celebrating as she gathers the courage to stand up for herself and do her family proud.
As much as Sistas is a show about the past, it is constantly looking toward the future, imagining what African American women will be able to accomplish in Tamika's generation. And theater like this is certainly a great way to start.
Sistas: the Musical plays at St. Luke's Theatre with an open run.