The late Nelson Mandela talked frequently of the two sides of being a prisoner, or as he so often said, a slave stuck in a jail.
He said there were emotions almost painfully in conflict with each other. One was the absolute destitute resignation and acceptance of your prison life. The other was the constant bubble of hope for freedom and a life which has been all but forgotten.
Rarely do you see that conflict more clearly expressed than in "A Midnight Cry," the James DeVita play that opened over the weekend at First Stage Childrenâ€™s Theater.
The slogan of First Stage, and it is much more than just a slogan dreamed up by some marketing committee, is "Transforming Lives Through Theater."
This play is an example of just how important and powerful those words are to First Stage.
"A Midnight Cry" tells the story of Lida, a young slave in Missouri and her journey to freedom along the Underground Railroad which took her through Milwaukee on her way to Canada.
Itâ€™s an emotionally packed packed story, filled with all the horror of slavery, pain, being sold away from your family, whippings and desperate avoidance of the man with the gun and whip.
First Stage recommends this play only for children who are over 8 years old, and itâ€™s because of those horrors.
When Lida, played with exquisite grace by Malkia Stampley, stands facing the audience which her bare back providing the target. We hold our breath in anticipation. And surely, Todd Denning, playing the white farm hand Jessup, uses a crack whip to create blistering sound in the space of the theater.
He is far enough back so thereâ€™s no danger that he will actually whip Stampley, but the way that whip cracks and her body cringes is enough to make an audience gasp and squirm in their seats in discomfort.
"My soul wants something new," Stampley sings after the whipping. She doesnâ€™t know precisely what it is, but she knows that "people talk like freedom is like a city you can go to."
At the encouragement of her Uncle Eli, Lida leaves under the cover of night, headed for the Mississippi and the path to freedom. "Big River" sings the cast, a dual spiritual testament to both the power of the river and the goal that it has become for the runaway slave.
Musical Director Sheri Williams-Pannell weaves part of the spirituals through the production, capturing both the hope and religious determination of the slaves in search of this mythic freedom.
From the very start of this play, we see the progression of Lida toward freedom. Â It begins with learning her numbers and learning to read and white. This play is about her journey.
Thereâ€™s a strong cast at the Todd Wehr Theater and, led by Stampley, they tell a complicated story with marvelous simplicity and strength.
Matt Daniels, as the overseer who disciplines, punishes and eventually searches relentlessly for the escaped Lida, continues his string of superlative performances in Milwaukee. Since Daniels moved here from Chicago, he has established himself at the top of the acting pyramid.
Mark Corkins, who is the powerful owner of the slaves in the first act and the reverend who leads Lida to the escape path in the second, continues to dazzle. He just finished playing a horrific prison guard and slaughterer in "Burying the Bones" at In Tandem, and now has to channel the slave owner. His ability is crushingly good.
Gavin Lawrence as Eli is the symbol of achievement and improvement in the world of the slave. He brings humor, wisdom and a relentless drive to his role and provides the beacon of what kinds of hope await those who work for it.
Much of this play is dark and full of agony so parents should take care about whether their children can cope with the kinds of brutality they will see. But it is well worth a little discomfort to see the brilliance of this slice of our history.
"A Midnight Cry" runs through Feb. 9. Information is available at firststage.org.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Dave Begel
Published March 26, 2015
Michael Isikoff is, perhaps, the best investigative reporter in the country and he has written a story about secret big money donations to Scott Walker. The story could well be the death knell for Walker's presidential aspirations.
Published March 24, 2015
Ron Roenicke had the team option through next season picked up, but that decision may well not be the best thing for the Brewers. Lame ducks have the freedom to take risks and be creative which is something the team could use.
Published March 17, 2015
Boxing has started to get national television exposure and early returns are that the sport still has a draw. At one point boxing was one of the most popular sports in the world.
Published March 15, 2015
"The Snow Dragon" at Skylight Music Theatre proves once again that brave choices make for enthralling nights of live entertainment. The English language opera deals with child abuse and the healing process for everyone.
Published March 14, 2015
"Five Presidents," at the Milwaukee Rep, takes a look at what it must have been like when four ex presidents and one sitting one gathered for the funeral for Richard Nixon. The play is full of humor but falls short when it comes to credibility.
Published March 12, 2015
Every candidate goes through the same steps when they think about running for president. Scott Walker has already taken six of the most obvious steps, so he must be serious about this whole thing.
Published March 10, 2015
Now that Bob Dandridge's jersey has been retired, attention moves to who should be next to climb into the ring of honor. There are lots of candidates, including some unusual ones.
Published March 5, 2015
Wisconsin law requires a 48-hour waiting period to purchase a handgun. Gov. Scott Walker has announced he would support a measure that will eliminate that waiting period. He made his pledge to the National Rifle Association.
Published March 3, 2015
Last year spring training was something we needed. As fans of the pro sports teams in Milwaukee and Green Bay, our spirits needed to be lifted out of the doldrums. But now we've got other stuff to be excited about so spring training doesn't have the urgency it once did.
Published March 2, 2015
"Come Back" is the work of local playwright Neal Haven, one getting its world premiere at In Tandem Theatre. It's a play about the grief of losing a loved one and tries to find humor in the situation.