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 Children’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.
It’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 it’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 there’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 doesn’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. It begins with learning her numbers and learning to read and white. This play is about her journey.
There’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 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.
Published March 1, 2015
There's a song they sing when there is a funeral in some of the rural parishes of Louisiana. "The graveyard ain't got no memories," they sing. It's not just the dead who are afraid of the memories, but the living are fearful as well, and it can be even tougher on those left behind if they try to make those memories clear. That is the essence of "The Train Driver," the powerful drama by Athol Fugard that opened over the weekend at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.
Published Feb. 28, 2015
Being in sixth grade can be a real problematic time, full of the turbulence of hopes and fears all at once. First Stage captures the whole thing in "Big Nate: The Musical."
Published Feb. 26, 2015
After losing a half-million-dollar judgement, the City of Milwaukee is looking at ways to avoid paying the money. One of the solutions being explored is granting Silk a license in exchange for dropping the lawsuit.
Published Feb. 24, 2015
Sports movies are among the greatest films ever made, so what better time to list the top 14 sports movies of all time than right after the Oscars?
Published Feb. 20, 2015
"God of Carnage" is a biting comedy about two couples who turn from civilized to animals before our very eyes. But when two of the actors can't remember their lines, the evening turns out to be a real dud.
Published Feb. 19, 2015
The owners Silk Exotic today won a big victory in federal court as a jury awarded them a judgement of almost half a million dollars for revenue lost because the city would not grant them a license for a Downtown strip club.
Published Feb. 19, 2015
Domestic violence is something that most of us think doesn't touch those close to us. But in fact this familial violence cuts across all economic, social, geographic and ethnic boundaries.
Published Feb. 17, 2015
Bo Ryan has been coaching for 30 years in Wisconsin and he's had success wherever he's been. What's more, he's done it with a unique coaching style that features a deliberate offense and a tenacious defense that has the Badgers ranked among the best teams in the country.