Kuumba Theatre

Perhaps you’ve seen that commercial on TV–the one in which various people call American Express to ask if they can apply for “the card” over the phone, and look like they’ve seen salvation when they’re told that they can. The actors in this ad are mostly white men and women of various ages, there is also one black person–a woman.

The image is not accidental. At all social levels, black women are increasingly finding themselves grappling with opportunities–and burdens–traditionally regarded as male. The “Queenie and Joe” stereotype from the musical Show Boat–the good-naturedly domineering mammy and her shiftless, self-pitying man–continues to wield its oppressive influence among both blacks and whites, exacerbated by contemporary social problems such as a drug-fueled crime epidemic that is stuffing prisons beyond the bursting point.

In such circumstances, healthy male-female relationships become difficult to achieve and maintain. This is the situation writer-director Val Ward confronts, in some of the bluntest terms imaginable, in her musical-theater work A Testimony to Your Love. Subtitled “A Praise Peace for Black Men,” the work is a collection of spoken and sung monologues on the theme of black male-female communication. An old woman reminisces about her strong daddy and his bravery in the face of 1920s Jim Crow racism; a welfare mother writes a letter to her imprisoned husband about the trials and joys of raising their teenage boy; a rising young professional unleashes the anger she feels over her boyfriend’s resentment of her success; a sexy preacher raps about the physical and emotional attributes of her man, one “Herbert Hoover Bo Diddley Jones.” The message repeated insistently by these very different women is: I love and respect you, but you must respect me as I move along in my own life too.

A Testimony to Your Love is a statement of support for black manhood; but it is also an assertion of the power of black women, certainly in music and theater. The singers, actors, dancers, and instrumentalists are all women (the performance I saw featured one man, dancer Glenn Whaley, but I am told he has since left the show). They are all dynamic and distinctively individual talents. Especially memorable impressions are made by Roz Winn, as the wife writing a letter to her jailed husband, in a wrenchingly moving portrayal of strength in desperate circumstances; by gospel singer Candice Walker in a series of gorgeous and emotive solos; by the kinetic Rhonda Ward in the exhilarating, hilarious “Herbert Hoover Bo Diddley Jones” sermon; and by the solid jazz band led by singer-pianist Colette and featuring some terrific saxophone playing by Diane Ellis, a worthy heir to her uncle, noted saxophonist Jimmy Ellis.

Val Ward shows here as she has in the past that she has a keen eye and ear for excellent stage personalities and voices. But as a writer, she betrays a tendency toward simplistic overstatement and preachiness, and a belief in the power of faith over logic, which may move the already converted but isn’t likely to win over the people most in need of hearing the crucial message that Testimony to Your Love expresses. The production is also badly impaired by technical problems–sloppy sound cues, microphone feedback, an out-of-tune piano, and an overzealous fog machine that nearly smothered the audience at the performance I attended. On the plus side is the painterly lighting design by Chris Boyd, which revealed a careful attention to detail that those in charge of the other technical elements should take a lesson from.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Doyle Wicks.