THOUGHTS: Bridges at the Berkeley Playhouse

A fearful Francine Williams (Janelle Lasalle) marches for freedom on Bloody Sunday in Berkeley Playhouse's World Premiere production of Bridges: A New Musical directed by Karen Altree Piemme, performing at the Julia Morgan Theater, Now – March 6, 2016. Photo by Ben Krantz Studio.

Francine Williams (Janelle Lasalle) marches for freedom on Bloody Sunday in 1965 Selma, Alabama. Photo by Ben Krantz Studio.

From now until March 6th, the Berkeley Playhouse is presenting the world premiere of Bridges, a musical by librettist Cheryl L. Davis and composer Douglas J. Cohen. Bridges is set in 1965 in Alabama during the Selma to Montgomery marches and in 2008 in the Bay Area, during a seminal election when Proposition 8 (making same-sex marriage illegal) was on the ballot and Barack Obama was in a race to become our nation’s first African American—and first biracial— president.

Bridges tells the story of Francine Williams, a young African-American social activist involved in the 1965 Civil Rights protest marches in Selma, who finds herself unexpectedly falling for her fellow marcher, the young, white, Jewish, and very smitten Bobby Cohen. Her tale is juxtaposed with the 2008 story of Franki Henderson, a teenage pastor’s daughter from an interracial family who finds herself unexpectedly falling for her fellow high school student and anti-Proposition 8 activist, Jasmine. In exploring the overlapping experiences of these two young women in their respective time periods and socio-political contexts, Bridges prompts examination of the complex subjects of protest and social inequality, interracial relationships, biracial identity, and sexual identity. In this musical, “bridges” serve as a metaphor for familial relationships that cross philosophical divides, romantic relationships that cross social divides, and as the metaphorical link between two social justice movements and the two settings of this musical. The simple but effective set consists of jutting arches of two real bridges, Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, with powerful historical photos flashing on screens built into the bridges.

Franki (Nandi Drayton), Jasmine (Kaylamay Suarez) and the cast proclaim “This I Will Overcome” in Berkeley Playhouse's World Premiere production ofBridges: A New Musical directed by Karen Altree Piemme, performing at the Julia Morgan Theater, Now – March 6, 2016. Photo by Ben Krantz Studio.

Franki (Nandi Drayton), Jasmine (Kaylamay Suarez), and the cast sing This I Will Overcome. in 2008 and 1965.  Photo by Ben Krantz Studio.

This is an admirably thematically ambitious musical. It focuses on deeply significant moments in US History, and I appreciated how well the play wove together the 1965 and 2008 stories, thematically and artistically. However, the nature of trying to address multiple complex themes within the confines of a two-and-a-half-hour family friendly musical means that some of the issues tackled inevitably felt somewhat oversimplified. For instance, I don’t think the musical quite captured the complexity of biracial identity, hampered by the fact that the voices that expressed opinions on the issue were those of the parents and not of their biracial children. That said, I appreciated that the musical did not try to supply easy answers to any of the various ideological conflicts presented, but rather represented and problematized multiple perspectives.

A highlight of Bridges is the music. The arrangements and the voices of the talented cast were powerful enough that the songs held up with only piano accompaniment. I enjoyed the playful ode to Magic the Gathering in What Group are You In?” I also loved the harmonies of Walk in the Shade of the Lord, its reprise, March with the Aid of the Lord, and the Hebrew hymn inspired Open Your Eyes. Janelle LaSalle (Francine) has a beautiful voice, and she and Joshua Marx (Bobby) did a fine job of making their love story believable in a very short amount of time. Amanda King as Grandma Henderson was a stand out of the cast, with excellent comic timing and delivery. I was also impressed to find out that Nandi Drayton, who plays Frankie, is only a sophomore in high school. She does an admirable job of grounding the 2008 end of this story, and in doing so, making this musical accessible to a young audience. This is a very family friendly play and I particularly recommend it to teachers and parents.

Reasons to go:

  1. #DiversityOnStage! This play has a wonderful diverse cast and tells the story of two important moments in Civil Rights history.
  2. #DiversityOnPage! Support a new work by the talented librettist, lyricist, playwright, and screenwriter of color Cheryl L Davis. You can read an interview with her here on Arts in Color!
  3. The music can make or break a musical and the music in Bridges is one of the stars of the show. Davis and composer Douglas J. Cohen do a wonderful job of mixing standard musical theater compositions with songs that specifically evoke the church settings of the Selma protest meetings in 1965 and Reverend Robert Henderson’s church in 2008.
  4. This musical tackles complex and important themes, and will leave you wanting to talk about it afterwards.
  5. The Berkeley Playhouse is running raffles during performances. Come and win passes to Disneyland!

Tips:

  1. Can’t afford a full-priced ticket? The Berkeley Playhouse offers cash-only pay what you can nights on select Thursdays. For Bridges, March 3rd is a pay what you can performance.
  2. The Berkeley Playhouse also offers complimentary rush tickets to k-12 teachers 30 minutes before evening performances the first three weeks of a run. Bring a teacher ID or a blacked out payslip.
  3. Parents and guardians with theatre loving children should check out the Berkeley Playhouse’s Conservatory program which offers classes, camps and youth productions.
  4. Food for intermission can be pre-ordered before the show. Don’t be afraid to come on an empty stomach, they offer much more than light pastries!
  5. Bring an umbrella if it seems like it might rain, the outdoor waiting area was lovely on a sunny afternoon but is potentially less pleasant on a stormy night
  6. Arrive early to find street parking if you drive. If you take public transportation, it is over a mile walk from the Rockridge Bart, but the 51B bus runs close to the theater.
  7. Take time to appreciate the architecture of the Julia Morgan Theater. Once a Presbyterian church, it is a particularly apt venue for a play where much of the action takes place in two churches.

Who should go: Everyone! This musical is appropriate for all ages. Young actors Nandi Drayton and Caleb Meyers as the Henderson children should particularly engage teens and children in the story.

Themes: Civil Rights, Gay Rights, Interracial Relationships, Identity, Biracial Identity, Sexual Identity, Social Protest, Parent-Child relationships, Family, Religion

Advisory: Parents may want to prepare very young children for some of the historical violence of the Selma Marches.

Bridges plays through March 6th at the Julia Morgan Theatre , 2640 College Avenue. Berkeley, CA. You can buy tickets anytime online on the Berkeley Playhouse website, or by emailing or calling the box office W-F between 11am and 4pm. Tickets can be bought at the door, but matinees are frequently sold out.

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