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A CurtainUp Review
The Last Year in the Life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as Devised by Waterwell: A Rock Opera
(a.k.a. The King/Operetta)

I'm a southern boy, Hoover. I've been to the God show. I know how these people work. However he wants to present himself, he's a politician. I've made enough speeches to know there's always an angle.—LBJ:
Very excellent speeches, Mr. President.— Hoover:
Bullshit. I can't speak for shit. The point is the speech itself. What's the angle here?! (Reading an excerpt) 'I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation. . .' I mean, what's he trying to pull here?— LBJ
Hoover: Nothing is what it seems. —
I could have handed his ass to him with a side of collared greens!—LBJ
King Operetta
Rodney Gardiner in a scene from The Last Year in the Life of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as Devised by Waterwell: A Rock Operetta
(Photo: Ryan Jensen)
The adventurous and audacious theatre collective known as Waterwell, which creates its works collaboratively, takes as the starting point for its new piece a speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr. at Manhattan's Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, one year to the day before his murder at the age of thirty-nine. Given before the group Clergy and Laity Concerned, the intentionally provocative and controversial speech, "Beyond Viet Nam: A Time to Break the Silence," was a watershed moment for King, signaling his move away from a focus merely on domestic concerns and linking poverty and class struggle in the United States to our nation's foreign policy boondoggles.

The speech, as spoken by company member Rodney Gardner at the top of evening, is truly shocking, made so not only by the obvious comparisons to the moral imperative so many feel today to speak out on the war in Iraq, but for the reminder it offers of the clarity and power of King as a communicator. One of the main themes of The Last Year in the Life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as Devised by Waterwell: A Rock Operetta is the hagiography surrounding the memory of Dr. King. Its opening song, "Call Dr. King," carries forward the tongue-firmly-in-cheek portentousness implied by the title, depicting the civil rights leader as a modern superhero, the go-to guy for all society's ills ("White man won't let you ride in the front of the bus? /Call Dr. King. /Won't let you sit down at the counter just to grab some lunch? /Call Dr. King. /Wanna send you off to war while at home you can hardly vote?/ Call Dr. King./ Might save the nation from putting her own claws to her own throat. /Call Dr. King"). The purposefully clunky rhymes underscore the clunkiness of the simplistic, if perennial desire for an all-purpose savior, but the music, composed by Lauren Cregor, is an always potent mixture of rock, blues and gospel.

The /King/Operetta (the company's suggestion for an abbreviation of the work's full title), is a pageant of nostalgia for a hero of moral certitude. The Viet Nam speech is used as the kicking off place for a rollicking, breakneck imagining of the leader's increasingly complicated life in his last year on earth. Short punchy scenes and songs show King consulting with close associates like Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson, sparring with reporters, planning the Poor Peoples' Campaign to force Washington's policy makers to address poverty in the South, supporting the Memphis sanitation workers' strike, and coming home late at night to a wife anxious about his safety.

The show unfolds on a bare stage designed by Dave Lombard with four musicians upstage (piano, electric guitar, electric bass and drums) and row of microphone on stands down front as if for a concert. The rest of the set consistes of four straight-back chairs. Stacey Boggs' lighting sticks to broad American reds, whites and blues to created thick strokes of light and dark for the quickly-shifting locales.

Gardner is the only African-American member of the cast. He is also the only actor playing only one role. A chorus of three men in mid-century gray suits and narrow ties and one woman in a conservative gray skirt with hair piled high play all the rest of the characters— black and white, liberal and redneck.

It's to Waterwell's credit that they took on the issue of race by casting that has a white actor play Ralph Abernathy (Tom Ridgely) and a white actress playing Coretta Scott King (Hanna Cheek). Even in an era of color-blind casting, it is still unusual for white actors to play black roles, and in this case it's effectively done.

The tone of the piece veers from an under-played and almost deadpan approach to broad caricature. While seeing FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover (Kevin Townley) and President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Arian Moayed) played as buffoons went over big with the audience on the night I attended, it seems an over-simplification of two of King's most significant adversaries. Much more successful was Hanna Cheek's fictional dipsomaniacal talk show host Toni Fortuna who baits King unmercilessly ("You're littler than I thought you'd be, ‘specially with that name! Mister-Rev-ba-da-ta-dablahKingie. Whole lotta qualifiers for one lil guy! What are you hiding, huh? What's in there, hmm?/ That's what Toni's here to find out".) The/King/Operetta deftly skewers the way in which the media, (whether Toni Foruna-esque hacks or highbrow journalists like Joan Didion, seen collecting insights on the counter culture of the sixties), promoted an image of Dr. King as a hero or a snake oil salesman.

The entire cast is on stage for the entire show but the workhorse role falls to Rodney Gardner asDr. King. Although he sometimes grimaces his way through his recitation of the Reverend's oratory, he captures the man's combination of forcefulness and ease and embodies him as a true leader in his famous call to arms "Drum Major" speech. Gardner also seems the most adept of the cast in his singing. Although several actors are members of a rock band, it's Gardner who has the most fluid and stylistically advanced singing voice. He clearly enjoys belting out songs like "The Jail Song" duet with Abernathy. Still, the company coalesces into an evening of engaging and thought-provoking theater and Waterwell's multi-authored play creates a strong single tone that takes the jigsaw pieces of an extraordinary life and creates a coherent theatrical vision of a leader we need more as a man than as an icon. Can anyone say Barack Obama?

Created by Waterwell
Directed by Tom Ridgely
Cast: Hanna Cheek (actor/writer) Rodney Gardiner (actor/writer), Arian Moayed (actor/writer), Tom Ridgely (actor/writer/director), Kevin Townley (actor/writer)br> Original Score: Lauren Cregor
Musicians: Lauren Cregor, Jeremy Daigle, Gunter Gruner, Joe Morse
Choreography: Lynn Peterson
Costume Design: Elizabeth Payne
Lighting Design: Stacey Boggs
Associate Lighting Design: Zack Brown
Set Design: Dave Lombard
Running Time: One hour and thirty-five minutes with no intermission
Barrow Street Theatre 27 Barrow Street 212-239.6200
From 6/21/07 through 8/11/07; opening 7/07/07
Tickets: $25.
Reviewed by Christopher Murray based on June 29th press preview

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