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A CurtainUp Review

Running Man

God made me pretty
God made me smart. . .
God made me black

The running man of this collaboration by avant-garde composer Diedre Murray and poet Cornelius Eady is a talented, sensitive black man whose premature death still haunts his sister seven years afterwards. The "opera" label is not a misnomer since the show is sung through and its theme of family dysfunction seeded by slavery and the African-American experience with racial prejudice certainly has all the earmarks of an operatic tragedy.

As operas go, Running Man is a chamber piece -- a cast of seven, a 6-piece onstage orchestra and a spare set. The music is indeed jazz, though not the foot-tapping genre dear to the hearts of many jazz lovers. The sound is dissonant, and the individually sung arias and ensemble pieces, are so tightly integrated into the story that it would be hard to appreciate them apart from the work as a whole.

While Running Man is not likely to be a mass audience pleaser, it will resonate emotionally with all who take advantage of this four-day window of opportunity to see it at the spacious Duffin Theater in Lenox. This production features three of the gifted members from the original cast of the 1999 Off-Off-Broadway version -- Darius De Haas as the adult Running Man, Robert Jason Jackson as his father and Ronnell Bey as the mysterious narrator Seven. Three equally outstanding additions to the original cast are: Kishna Davis as mother; Johmaalya Adelekan as Running Man's sister, Miss Look; and 11-year-old Jammal Thompson as the younger Running Man.

As originally conceived by Ms. Murray Running Man called for a much larger cast, but director Diane Paulus has managed to invest this tight ensemble with a big heart and sensibility. The numbers featuring several or all of the cast are particularly striking. The story is a flashback and flash forward, with Ms. Murray's alter ego, Miss Look, being guided through the maze of her parents' struggle to dominate their sensitive son -- the learning smitten mother wanted him to "bring her the world" while father, disillusioned by his experience as a black soldier, wanted him to be tough.

Paulus' staging is abetted by Myung Hee Cho's stunning evocation of a Virginia graveyard with a tree shaded road at stage rear that is lit to moody perfection by Michael Chybowski. It all transforms the essentially familiar story into a heartbreaking unveiling of one family's trauma. Cornelius Eady's roots as a poet give the lyrics a true spiritual beauty full of rich imagery: Seven's description of Running Man's descent into danger as "he sliced into the world like a switchblade," and her call for the truth with "grass can't be snow and snow can't be green."
  • Miss Look's justifying that she turned her back on her brother because "a bird can't live with a snake," and her final acceptance of the troubled brother -- a prince who "lived as a man" which is why "the best part of my brother is the best part of my heart."

    Throughout the 75 intermissionless minutes words, music and action are anchored in the small band's marvelous playing. These fine musicians are prominently placed at the side of the stage, yet they never overwhelm the singers.

    Despite being a Pulitzer Prize runner-up, Running Man has had only a few productions. One hopes that this 4-day run in Lenox will be the first of many other stops. As already stated, it's not for everyone, and most definitely not for little kids, like the noisy tot whose parents unwisely and rudely failed to take out of the theater. Teen agers are another matter, and might come to this music with less preconceived expectations than their parents.

    Story and Music by Diedre Murray
    Text by Cornelius Eady
    Director: Diane Paulus
    Conductor: Gary Fagin
    Cast: Ronnell Bey/Seven; Kishna Davis/Mother; Darius De Haas/Running Man; Robert Jason Jackson/Father; Miss Look/Johmaalya Adelekan; Younger Running Man/Jamaal Thompson
    Musicians: Jim Nolet/violin, Nioka Workman/cello, Marvin Sewell/guitar, Tony Cedras/accordion, Michael Bisio/bass, Newman Baker/percussion
    Set Design: Myung Hee Cho
    Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi
    Sound Design: Brett Jarvis
    Lighting Design: Michael Chybowski
    Presented by Music Theatre Group for a limited 4-day run -- 8/24/2000-8/28/2000
    at the Duffin Theatre, Lenox, MA (413) 298-5504
    Running time: 75 minutes, without intermission

    Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 8/24/2000performance
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