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 Oct. 21, 2014
The Green Bay Packers destroyed the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, and were leading, 21-0, after one quarter. It led me to wonder: is it better, or more fun to watch, a rout or a nail-biter.
Published Oct. 20, 2014
It was just a rehearsal - no costumes, no set, no orchestra, no chorus, no plush seats, no lights on stage. As a matter of fact, there was no stage at all, just a piano. And the whole thing was in German. In spite of all of those things that weren't there, the thing that was there was a fascinating story and some amazing voices that told the story with such romance and strength that I followed the whole thing from my folding chair.
Published Oct. 19, 2014
From "Romeo and Juliet" to "Love Story," the tale of youngsters who fall in love, only to see death and a search for meaning in it all is so often told that it seems to have become almost a cliche of itself. But when that story gets mixed with history and put into the hands of a small coterie of very creative people, the story creates the kind of theatrical magic that comes only on occasion. That's what happened when "Amelia" opened Saturday night.
Published Oct. 18, 2014
Most of the time when a play opens, it's easy to figure out who the star is - usually an actor with a major part. Sometimes, the star can be something else, like a director or a composer or a costume designer. Rarely would anybody pick a lighting designer as the star, unless they see the wonderful production of "Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars" that opened the season for First Stage.
Published Oct. 17, 2014
Alchemist Theatre billed "Suicide Sleep"as its Halloween show, but nobody in the audience was trembling or closing their eyes to keep phantoms away. Instead, they were all on the edge of their seats - as was I - riveted with curiosity about just where this journey was going to take us.
Published Oct. 16, 2014
The second and last televised debate between Scott Walker and Mary Burke is tomorrow night from 7 to 8 p.m. and I've got a couple of suggestions for you. Walk your dog. Clip your toenails. Call your mother. Organize your kitchen cupboard. Order a pizza. Clean out your email folders. Sleep. Anything! Anything to avoid this farce being perpetrated on the people of Wisconsin.
Published Oct. 14, 2014
I support the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in its battle to keep the old Milwaukee Arena (now the UWM Panther Arena) from meeting the wrecking ball in order to build a new Downtown arena. One, I love the building's history. Two, there is a better spot for a new arena.
Published Oct. 13, 2014
There's hardly anything I admire more than a chef who can take wildly different flavors, put them on a plate and serve something that is more delicious than you ever imagined. That admiration was reinforced Friday when I stopped for breakfast at Peter Sandroni's Engine Company No. 3.
Published Oct. 13, 2014
Liban has had quite a 50 years. He's been up and down and up and down and up. He's faced substance abuse, charlatan promoters, empty promises, dark and dingy clubs, big stages, European tours, the death of a loved one, some racial uncertainties and eventually his present state of comfort. If that sounds like a blues song, it's because his life has been like a great tune.
Published Oct. 12, 2014
There's this thing about cheap jokes: They can either be just cheap jokes, or they can be incredibly funny cheap jokes. And it's the incredibly funny kind that fill the two-plus hours of "Shear Madness," what may well be the longest running non-musical play in history.