I was not fully prepared for the new show enjoying its world premiere at Open Door Repertory Company called “Clara,” by McKinley Johnson. I knew it was about Clara Ward (1924-1973), a gifted and hugely successful gospel artist of the mid-20th Century, but I guess I was anticipating either a musical revue or a dramatized history lesson. Let me tell you, this provocative production is chock full of powerhouse performances.
“Clara” is an electrifying piece of theater that tells a harrowing story about a major gospel star whose career soared yet her life was full of heartache. The characters are boldly drawn and the cast is vigorous and talented.
The strongly written all-black drama is also solidly directed by playwright Johnson who also collaborated with George Cooper and Jaret Williams on the score, which includes gospel standards associated with Clara Ward but features about 10 new songs, too. There is so much good music and captivating choreography it’s nearly impossible to sit still during several lively scenes.
In old Hollywood musicals like “42nd Street” there is often a plot point in which the leading lady is unable to perform on opening night and when another actress steps in at the last minute she not only saves the day, she is spectacular. That’s essentially what’s happened with Open Door’s “Clara.” Dee Lane was playing the title role of the show when her father suddenly passed in Detroit. Preview performances were scrapped while Melanie Loren quickly jumped into the role and she is remarkable. Lane, whom I am sure is also strong as the gospel queen who found so little joy in her personal life, will be returning to the show this week.
You may be familiar with classic backstage biopics like “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” with Susan Hayward or “Lady Sings the Blues” with Diana Ross. The formula of these true story musical melodramas always features an exhausting rise to fame and fortune, family dysfunction, addiction and/or alcoholism, and ill-fated romantic relationships, all compounded by the rigors of being relentlessly on the road. “Clara” would make a dynamic movie in this genre. It has “all the tickets,” and then some. The story begins in 1973 at Clara Ward’s funeral, after the performer died from a stroke at 49, then via flashback proceeds to depict her rough-ride from poverty to international fame.
Though Loren plays the title character, aspects of the show remind me of “Gypsy,” in which young burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee is overshadowed by her domineering stage mother, Mama Rose, who stops at nothing to pursue her dreams of success for her daughter. “Mother” Gertrude Ward is a ruthless dynamo so driven that she never took no for an answer.
In the era of segregation when there were few opportunities for women of any color, let alone African Americans, this pushy promoter blazed a new trail for the widely popular Clara Ward Singers. She sponsored extensive national tours, created a booking agency for gospel acts, and promoted Clara’s career to unimaginable heights. Mrs. Ward was also competitive with her own daughter whose relationships she sabotaged to keep the act moving on up. She was tight-fisted about sharing the group’s financial success with Clara’s grossly underpaid back-up singers who she frequently replaced.
In the role of Gertrude Ward (1901-1981), Toni Lynice Fountain is incredibly bold. She gives a stunning, unforgettable performance as a woman driven by her dreams and haunted by her own early deprivation and abuse. Mother Ward often reminds Clara that “I did for you what I didn’t do for myself.” She’s like stage-mother Mama Rose, a veritable backstage bulldozer, but also much like the monstrous harpy Joan Crawford character in “Mommie Dearest,” lashing out at times of insecurity and turning frighteningly abusive to get her way. Fountain makes Mrs. Ward ferociously real yet you never hate her. She’s fiercely driven but the actress never chews the scenery. There’s a climactic confrontation scene between mother and daughter that is harrowing.
The new songs written for the show are often character driven. One that has especially stayed with me is called “You’ll Never Reach Destiny Staying in Your History.” Mother Ward is usually the perfect “church lady” but Fountain’s boogie-style number, early on while she’s struggling as a laundress during the Great Depression, is hilarious fun; it’s called “I Wanna Work for a Sleepy Rich White Woman.”
One of the many joys of this production are the two twin sisters who play Clara (Joshlyn Lomax) and Willa Ward (Jillian Lomax) as children. They are remarkably talented young ladies and though the story grows increasingly fascinating as it moves forward, you miss their spunk, their sparkling eyes and energy when the adult performers assume the roles.
Renardo Johnson, strong as Clara’s kindly father, is especially poignant when he sings “We Got Us,” about how African American men were often unable to give their families much besides dreams.
Tierra Whetstone is moving, full of warmth and charm as Clara’s sister Willa, a talented young singer whose mother often denigrated her and played her off against her sibling.
Every performer is strong and versatile. Randolph Johnson, for instance, plays characters ranging from a sexual predator relative to the Reverend C. L. Franklin, Aretha’s father. Other cast members, all dynamic and energized, are Phallon Antoinette Boyd, Omani Ade Harris, Jos N. Banks, and Eric A. Lewis. Lewis is also the show’s choreographer.
It’s fascinating to watch the evolution of the gospel group that began in choir robes on the church circuit but became so “show biz” they were soon wearing sequined gowns, huge wigs, and eye-catching jewelry while appearing in Las Vegas nightclubs and on television.
This show is quite cinematic with lots of fluidity in terms of changing locations and a swirl of minor characters. The only drawback for me was the at times slightly disorienting device of having cast members playing multiple roles. Each performer has such a distinctive look that, for instance, when Jos N. Banks plays an undertaker, a landlord, a deacon, and then suddenly becomes Clara’s sister’s suitor, it’s a tad jarring.
The musical director, Eric Troy, is the accompanist on an electric piano. Sharlet Webb is stage manager.
The performance of “Clara” lasts two hours and twenty minutes, with one short intermission.
I hope people realize how special it is to experience work of this high caliber being “born” right in our community. Don’t miss “Clara.”