Welcome Home, Marian Anderson” is not really a play and not quite a recital, yet as a work-in-progress the piece offers a great deal of valuable information about the celebrated contralto and concert artist, as well as some distinctive vocalizing. Vanessa Shaw, the work’s author, also portrays the title character. She offers a revealing portrait of the African-American performer who broke racial barriers, bringing considerable pride and respect to her people.
Flashbacks provide a glimpse of early racial discrimination suffered by the budding singer, as well as fleeting portraits of family and associates. Shaw’s narrative focuses primarily on the pivotal year of 1935, when Anderson was achieving success on the European concert stage just before the Nazis rose to power.
As a vocalist, Shaw serves the music with considerable distinction. A soprano, she does not have Anderson’s rich, dark timbre, and sings only two arias in the contralto’s original key. Musical selections include Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and a sparkling touch of Bizet’s “Habanera,” some Mozart and Schubert lieder and, of course, many spirituals.
“America” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” serve for a rousing patriotic finale at Washington’s Lincoln Memorial, when Anderson sang to an audience of 75,000 after having been famously denied permission to perform at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Mark Edward Lang performs in several roles, from Anderson’s errant suitor and later husband Orpheus Fisher to the garrulous impresario Sol Hurok. His well-crafted portrait of Finnish accompanist Kosti Vehanen brings a nice balance of warmth and humor to the narrative.
Ivan Thomas also fills many slots, notably a somewhat cuddly Nazi border guard, who lets Anderson pass once she has proved herself a concert artist by singing. Thomas also has his moments singing a little Cole Porter in the manner of the celebrated saloon singer Leslie Hutchinson.
His most valuable contribution is to provide piano accompaniment; he admirably rolls though bits of Bizet and Schubert with assurance. (The six-foot 1915 maple grand piano used in the production served to accompany Anderson at a 1942 Trenton War Memorial concert and will soon be auctioned off.)
Elizabeth Van Dyke’s spare and pointed direction and Antoinette Tyne’s sensitive lighting design define what is little more than a recital stage, yet a decided asset is the play’s venue, an old stone sanctuary that is the home of the adventurous Passage Theater Co.