Contributed by Marcus Dargan
When I was younger and my grandmother used to babysit us, she would often pass the time by cleaning the house. Even though we had a vacuum cleaner, she would get down on her hands and knees and pick the carpet clean with her fingers. She would go through it inch by inch, meticulously plucking each piece of lint from the carpet like she was picking cotton. She would also scrub the tiled floors by hand, and yes, we did have a mop. One evening, after a long day of babysitting and cleaning, she sat motionless in the reclining chair with her legs propped up. Her faded house dress riding up with her worn brass legs exposed, reveling her scarred knees darkened from scraping against the floors. She was listening to WWRL 1600AM, a now defunct gospel radio station at the edge of the dial. They were broadcasting a live service from Refuge Temple, an Apostolic church in New York City.
That night, I asked my grandmother why she cleaned the carpet and floors on her hands and knees. Like a wax statute come to life, she told me stories of how she used to work, cleaning “white people’s houses” for a living. That was the way she was trained to do it back then and that’s how she’s been doing it ever since. Sitting beside her on the carpet she had picked clean, on my knees, I touched her scars and a tear rolled down her cheek. We both cried silently as we listened to the radio preacher call people to Jesus. The choir sang “Come to Jesus” softly in the background and my grandmother sang along.
This weekend I saw the new musical revue ALIVE! 55 and Kickn’ at The Dempsey Theater in Harlem. This was my first time back at that theater since they’ve replaced the hardwood auditorium style seats and florescent house lights with plush rows, carpet and modern chandeliers. The crowd was familiar to me. Brown folks, young and old gathering together for an off-off-Broadway show, but it felt more like an extended family finding their seats right before a church service. The lights went out, the music started and just as quickly they rose up revealing a choir of sorts singing their hearts out to a medley of traditional gospel songs. You could feel the wave of energy rush from the stage and sweep through the crowd. Hands started clapping, feet were stomping, heads got to swaying and we were all in from the beginning.
The performance progressed through a series of monologues, which were more like personal testimonies, followed by songs inspired by each individual’s story. This is the real meat of the show. Like most theatergoers, I am accustomed to seeing well-seasoned actors on the stage portraying characters backed by years of professional training, technique and million dollar production values. But there is something about seeing real people telling their own stories that connects to a different part of the soul. This doesn’t take away from the production. In fact, it adds something unique you won’t quite find on Broadway.
ALIVE! is a different type of theatre. It cuts deeply and taps into a genuine African American shared experience often celebrated at funerals, anniversaries and family reunions. It creates a narrative through gospel, rhythm and blues, soul and pop. You don’t just plug in and check out. You openly laugh, cry, sing and praise along with them. During the intermission, my friend Johnnie Mae made sure to get some tissues from the bathroom to catch her tears for the second act. When the house lights bumped, she strapped herself in her chair clutching a giant wad of toilet tissue, ready for round two.
The music of ALIVE! is a testament of the African American experience with popular standards that are familiar to most and a roster of traditional songs we all know and love, but probably haven’t heard in a while. ALIVE! will take you back. The personal introductions by the cast to the songs encourage you to make your own connections to the lyrics. Each song evoked a different memory and experience for me. When they sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” my parent’s wedding song which nobody sings anymore, I cried through the entire song. It allowed me to reflect on my broken relationship with my parents, whom I haven’t spoken to in about 5 years. “One Hundred Ways” made me think of my Aunt Shirley dancing in a nightclub to its deep groove. Darlene Eklou sang “I’ve Got a Testimony,” and I was in tears again. Her son and I were best friends in high school. He has since passed. It presented the opportunity for me to celebrate his life and our friendship.
The show ends with a riveting medley of songs, including “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Another memory: Sis. Porter, a mother in my home church, used to sing this song. She was classically trained and would blow us away with this big operatic voice. Oh, the memories this show stirs up in you. Amazingly, the audience was on their feet singing and marching along with the cast during “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Think about it… When was the last time you heard that song, let alone joined anyone in singing and marching to it? Who does that? ALIVE! just has that effect on you. It is engaging, cathartic, invigorating and above all healing.
ALIVE! features a cast of 18, all in their mid-50s and older. In the cast you’ll find retirees, government employees, nurses, local ministers and even convicted felons. They are not professional actors or singers. ALIVE! is that church mother who would bring down the Holy Spirit every Sunday morning, your uncle who would harmonize in the project stairwell back in the days and even your grandmother who would sing along to the radio after a day of picking carpets clean.
ALIVE! runs through June 14th with Saturday matinees at 2PM and the occasional 5PM evening performances at The Dempsey Theater, 127 West 127th Street, between Lenox and 7th Avenues in Harlem, New York.
Tickets can be purchased online at SmartTix or by calling the box office at 212 280-1045 for individual sales and group rates.
ALIVE! is produced by Vy Higginsen and Mama Foundation for the Arts and written and directed by Ken Wydro.
For more info, visit mamafoundation.org or call 212 280-1045.