Root Woman, Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre. Our first impression of this theatrical production of Angela Shannon’s poems is one of sloppy casualness. The ensemble take the stage stretching and smiling at one another, seemingly oblivious to the audience as they warm up. But when the show truly begins, we discover the focus and commitment this group brings to the show’s evocative poetry, music, and imagery.
An ensemble of 12, diverse in race and age, performs more than 40 of this Chicago playwright’s poems, which impart eye-opening tales of racial inequity, sad stories of death and loneliness, joyous memories of uninhibited youth, and fond recollections of family and romantic love. Director Phillip Edward VanLear gives this world premiere a determined pacing, and his cast uses pauses and repetition to good effect: instead of simply reciting the poems, the ensemble seems to experience them. When the cast works to build an environment supporting Shannon’s words the effect can be striking–or, on occasion, distracting.
In one of the show’s smoother transitions, the actors are transformed from churchgoers to chattel in one quick movement. Other links between the poems are not as seamless. Sandra Renee Black’s music direction provides the production’s backbone; percussionist Eddie Mason accompanies the action, and recorded music fades in and out to set various tones. The ensemble’s singing gives such poems as “Washin'” and “Jesus and B.B. King” a vibrant life.