‘Reader’s theater’ format stifles Acrosstown’s ‘Tambourines to Glory’


“Tambourines to Glory” features Eloise Walters, left, as Laura Reed and Stan Richardson, right, as Buddy Lomax in a stage-read production of Langston Hughes’ play at the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre through March 31. (Brett Le Blanc/Correspondent)

Published: Thursday, March 21, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 at 6:58 p.m.

There is much more to “Tambourines to Glory” than meets the eye at the Acrosstown Repertory Theater.

Facts

‘Tambourines to Glory’

What: Langston Hughes’ musical about two women who open a church in Harlem
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through March 31
Where: Acrosstown Repertory Theatre, 619 S. Main St.
Tickets: $12; $10 for students, educators, veterans and seniors, in advance and at the door.
Info: 505-0868, Acrosstown.org

And that’s the problem: There is not all that much to occupy the eye during the course of this nearly two-hour production. Indeed, there is almost no eye-contact at all; not between the actors and the audience, nor even the actors themselves.

“Tambourines to Glory” is Langston Hughes’ venerable 1956 comedy about faith, greed and redemption. It follows the exploits of two down-on-their-luck women who start a street church in Harlem and proceed to strike it rich selling phony holy water and predicting winning lottery numbers thinly disguised as biblical citations.

It ought to be a movable feast, because Hughes’ script is a rich brew of bitingly funny dialogue and soul-stirring gospel songs. It is the stuff that should make you want to jump to your feet and dance.

But not even the actors seem to want to do that.

And you can’t really blame the actors. During the course of “Tambourines,” flashes of passion and insight are displayed that make the viewer hunger for more.

When Sebrenah Phillips, as Essie Johnson, raises her eyes halfway to the heaven and proceeds to make a “joyful noise unto the lord” she looks and sounds like someone who was born to sing gospel.

Stan Richardson has a velvet-smooth voice, smoky laugh and a seductive smile that nails his Buddy Lomax serpent-in-the-garden personna.

Eloise Walters is perfectly believable in the role of con artist/street preacher/woman scorned Laura Reed.

And the high point of the show arrives when Angela Gaskin, as sinner-come-back-to-Jesus Birdie Lee, rises to her feet and belts out a gospel testimony that is truly stirring.

Unfortunately, that was one of the few times any of the actors stood up on opening night for any reason at all.

The problem with this version of “Tambourines to Glory” is that it’s being presented in “reader’s theater” format. The actors remain seated, eyes relentlessly glued to their scripts, reading their lines, too often, in rote-fashion. The gospel singing is good, sometimes very good, but there is not nearly enough of it to relieve the tedium of the play’s static delivery.

One can imagine plays that are appropriate for reader’s theater; “Our Town” comes to mind. But as conceived by Hughes, “Tambourines” demands a show of exuberance and animation that is rarely on display at the ART.

This production will run through March 31. Here’s an idea: Ditch the chairs. Let the actors clutch their scripts and deliver their lines on their feet.

Perhaps then the spirit of Harlem street life that inspired Langston Hughes to write “Tambourines to Glory” in the first place will move these able but confined actors to really shake their tambourines.

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