Gloria Naylor’s novel “The Women of Brewster Place,” about courage and personal failings among a group of African-American women, was adapted as a sobering TV miniseries in 1989. But a musical? Newcomer Tim Acito (“Zanna, Don’t”) has penned book, music and lyrics for this earnest, relatively cheerful and generally appealing tuner, making its official bow with a seven-week run at D.C.’s Arena Stage, following a shakedown production earlier this year at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater.
Set in 1975, Naylor’s novel examines the lives of 10 black women who inhabit a dead-end housing project in an undetermined city. Fashioned into a two-parter for ABC produced by and featuring Oprah Winfrey, the successful series drew some criticism for its stereotypes of African-Americans, especially its relentless screed against black men.
Although the fundamentals haven’t changed, Acito’s adaptation and Arena a.d. Molly Smith’s production are decidedly more upbeat. The absent landlord is still uncaring and the city has all but abandoned the enclave by building a wall to isolate the ghetto community from the growing metropolis around it.
But Naylor’s tale isn’t just about discrimination. Each character has certain self-inflicted wounds in a microcosm of ghettos everywhere, unveiled more as a diffuse examination than a streamlined plot.
Yet through it all, the current denizens of Brewster Place find plenty to sing about. A whopping 26 numbers fill this mostly buoyant show and propel its plot with all encompassing lyrics. There are songs about adversity, prejudice, communication and defiance, all written in ’70s era funk, R&B and gospel.
The musical feels almost operatic in concept: The show’s first extended spoken dialogue occurs well into the first act, when idealist rebel Kiswana (Monrique L. Midgette) gets a lesson in civil rights from her wealthy mother (Terry Burrell) –a key scene played in the TV version by Robin Givens and Cicily Tyson.
Acito’s self-assigned mission is to neither wallow in the intensely personal miseries nor cheapen Naylor’s serious message about nobility and personal frailty. He must also bring cohesion to the disparate predicaments, an equally difficult task in which he’s not totally successful.
While the quality of Acito’s score and lyrics understandably varies in this massive volume of work, on balance it’s extremely impressive.
Act one bursts with life in the rousing church number, “Oh, Etta Mae,” and a cute song about Billie Holiday called “Sing Billie.” Other highlights include the tender “Leave the Light On” and festive “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The act ends with a lovely and effective “This Ain’t a Prayer,” perhaps the show’s strongest number.
The second act offers an equally powerful array, especially the heartfelt “How I Hate It When the World Gets Into You,” a tune about the lesbian lifestyle called “Getting’ Freaky With Me,” and “Was There a Moment When?”
A capable ensemble of performers takes charge in the astute production. Tina Fabrique offers an effectively understated perf as Mattie, the more-or-less central character played in the TV pic by Winfrey. Marva Hicks brings her powerful voice and style to the part of Etta Mae, Mattie’s flamboyant bed-hopping chum. Shelley Thomas as the vulnerable Lucielia and Midgette as Kiswana are among other standouts.
Smith directs with remarkable sensitivity. The project not only exemplifies the a.d.’s fondness for new American works that explore diversity, but the Brewster Place scenario eerily resembles Arena’s own southwest D.C. neighborhood in an isolated section of the city.
Anne Patterson’s sparse but effective set is dominated by author Naylor’s cruel wall, the metaphor for racial discrimination. Not only a backdrop, it serves as a screen for mood-enhancing lighting from Michael Gilliam and projections by Adam Larsen that include shadows of the menacing men. Paul Tazewell’s ’70s era costumes are colorful and appropriate.
Among other attributes, Garth Hemphill’s sound gives effective voice to the numerous “invisible” children who populate the show. And Kenneth Roberson’s choreography is precisely on target, especially in the penultimate “Tear Down the Wall” number.