The Crossroads Theater Company has reopened its doors for a 26th season, following a fiscal crisis that shuttered the house for three years. The African-American theater, honored with a 1999 regional theater Tony Award, returns with the world premiere of “History of the Word,” a hip-hop musical journey that examines the complexities, goals and hopes of six multiracial high school students.
The inner-city youth explore their hopes and dreams with some inspirational quotes from Shakespeare, Walt Whitman and Martin Luther King, among other worldly scribes and philosophers, illustrating not only the potent history of the word, but the continuing and lasting strength and power of language and how it relates to them. The collage of music, poetry and prose merges into a vividly profound celebration of pride, hope and determination.
Born in an experimental workshop, the characters were fashioned by true-life experiences and sculpted into theatrical form by director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj. The play is fueled by a heady mix of rap and break-dancing, each character illustrating insightful pangs of determination and growth that are both humbling and inspiring.
As chubby would-be ballerina Felice, Britton Jones wears her tutu over a jumpsuit with great expectations of becoming a Broadway star, providing an amusing, jazz-flavored excerpt when Felice takes a spin to Duke Ellington’s version of “The Nutcracker Suite.” Jones invests the play with spirit and humor.
Kayo, a wise and defiant student at odds with his teacher’s philosophy, is acted with a keenly drawn hostile edge by James DeLeon. Ali (Utkarsh Ambudkar) offers a timely account of the Arab-American son off to fight in the Iraq conflict.
Jed Dickson gives a sobering portrait of the frustrated white liberal history instructor who attempts to teach his students the turbulent plight and repercussions of the civil rights movement.
Along with cheerleader Yolanda (Angela Lewis) and Angela Kariotis, the cast illustrates a profound design of purpose and direction, played out with illuminating clarity.
Scripter Ben Snyder has given the students compelling narratives and, like the dedicated dancers of “A Chorus Line,” each harbors an urgent personal goal that governs his or her destiny. The piece has a great deal of energy fueled by dance segments and, despite the far-reaching diversity of the students and their plight, there is compelling sense of unity.
Virtually void of sets, the production is enhanced by projected visual imagery of changing school periods, from gym class and lunch break to homeroom locales. A focused lighting design sharply defines the solo turns.
York Theater plans a Manhattan run in March.