A Song For Coretta Review

If you choose to venture to under the radar West Palm Beach theatre Actor’s Rep this weekend, you’ll find an unexpected gem in their moving production of A Song For Coretta by playwright Pearl Cleage. The title of the play refers to Coretta Scott King, who first came into the public eye as the wife of Martin Luther King Jr. and became a powerful activist in her own right and a leader of the civil rights movement after his passing. When Scott King herself passed away in 2006, thousands of mourners gathered outside the Ebenezer Baptist Church to pay their final respects.

This is where the play takes place, focusing on five Black women from different generations, backgrounds, and walks of life. Together with snappy dialogue, this makes for a dynamic, well-paced show as their different perspectives lead to compelling conflict and unexpected connections.

Our guide of sorts to the action is Zora, an aspiring reporter on the scene looking for a story who is played by actress Julia Harris with a sweet, bubbly energy that helps grab our attention from the start. It’s this clever framing device that guides us through the lives of the rest of the play’s characters, the first she meets being an elderly woman named Helen (Adrienne Waters)  who poignantly reminisces about her first-hand encounter with King as a child during the civil rights movement.

The two are later joined by Mona Lisa (Suni Mayo-Simpson), a street artist from New Orleans and survivor of hurricane Katrina; Keisha (Mikayla Guerrier) a spunky teenager with a dark secret; and Gwen (Makaela Onique Chang), an opinionated Iraq war veteran. Thanks in large part to the expert hand of director Karen Stephen, the talented ensemble do a great job of distinguishing the five characters and imbuing each with a distinct energy and personality.

In doing so, they also imbue each with a palpable sense of humanity, which in turn helps to compensate for some of the weaknesses of the script and its somewhat broad and stereotypical portrayals of the characters. The actors are further aided in the task by some excellent costume design, which is both down to earth enough to suit the characters’ humble nature and visually highlights each’s unique qualities. Guerrier was also particularly fun to watch in her embodying her character’s over-the-top urbanness, and Mayo-Simpson’s powerful and grounded performance as Mona Lisa was another highlight.

Though the passing of Mrs. King is the thing that brings this unlikely group together, the play’s set-up allows Cleage to explore a wide variety of other topics, including hard-hitting contemporary issues like military corruption, violence against women, and reproductive choice. While the relatively short play stays relatively surface level when it comes to these topics, it succeeds in crafting emotionally compelling narratives for its characters that are sometimes heartwarming, sometimes horrifying, occasionally shocking, and ultimately incredibly moving.

Consequently, anything that the play or the production lacks in polish it makes up for in earnestness, charm, and entertainment value. Importantly, it also provides a window into the viewpoints and experiences of Black women in the stories, something that may be uniquely illuminating for audience members of other backgrounds and uniquely affirming for those who have shared their struggles.

As director Ms. Stephens put it “Huge strides have been made, yet there is still a ways to go.  We pay tribute to those who carved the path.”

While the darker moments of the play demonstrate just how far there is left to go in combatting racism and its institutional remnants, the play manages to end on an uplifting note that clearly struck a chord with many audience members. At only about 90 intermission-less minutes, the show also makes this big impact without overstaying its welcome, making it a more than worthy way to spend an afternoon or evening.

Especially as Juneteenth approaches, I can think of no more fitting way to celebrate the spirit of the holiday and of Scott King than taking in this thoughtful homage to the heroine, which stands as a profound testament to her and to all she fought for. In doing so, you’ll also be celebrating the talents of, in Stephens and the show’s cast, the six incredible modern Black women who are giving their all to bring this work of art to life. With only three shows to go, don’t miss out on the chance to grab your ticket!

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