TAKE THE SOUL TRAIN TO CHRISTMASby Ekundayo Bandele
Directed by D. Wambui Richardson
Stage Manager – Kris Black Jasper
Musical Director – Donarius Mims
Choreographer – Kevin Davis Jr.
Sound Design – David Lanza
Light Design – Holli Price
Costume Design – Hope Cox
Lead Scenic Designer – Mya Cockrell
Co-Designer/Scenic Painter – Jennye James
Technical Director – Taylor G. Allen
Crew Build 1 – Colin M. Schwartz
Artistic Director – D. Wambui Richardson
Associate Producer – Charles Jackson Jr.
Narrator/Ensemble – Ron Johnson
Zeke/Claude/Judge – Dameron Growe
Miriam/Gloria/Yardstick Sister – Crystal Williams
Mary/Janice/Afro Two – Shaundra Norwood
John/Fred/Afro One/Dyno Man – Devin Gaut II
Grandad – Sekou Calhoun
Soloist/Dancer – Alona Bennett
Nate – Tristen Brown
Rosa – Kayla Marshall
Luke – Kyle Spears
Soloist 2/Dancer – Sanesia Tillman
Reviewed Performance: 11/26/2022
Reviewed by Ann Saucer, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
A debonair Ron Johnson commands the stage from the beginning, looking gorgeous in red velvet as he jokes and shepherds the audience through holiday festivities, traditions, and politics throughout American history. Frequently his narration is cleverly metered poetry, reminiscent of the Night Before Christmas.
The direction is superb in that the action, costumes, music, and settings metamorphosize at a rapid pace, and yet the performances are seamless. The choreography is remarkable in the types of dance styles that the performers cycle through. The high-action antics are frequently funny, for example, hilarious belly-crawling to the Mission Impossible theme music.
The set includes both three- and two-dimensional Christmas trees, some of which light up on cue from Johnson, our handsome emcee. The stage is decorated with presents, and the paintings hovering above them illustrate holiday scenes throughout the ages: stockings hanging in a fireplace with a 1980s-style street rocker radio; a Christmas tree with a rabbit-eared TV; a family hanging ornaments; a celebratory bride and groom; and a line of singers, one playing a large drum. The set and stage facilitate the cast’s high-energy singing and dancing through different scenes. Benches double as steps and platforms to elevate the narrator or the smooth vocalist Alona Bennett.
The performance commences with cheery holiday music and lively cast pantomimes. As it begins “to look a lot like Christmas,” the audience is treated to a wedding proposal, a lounging television watcher, and a trio of happy students crossing downstage.
These three students, Nate (Tristen Brown), Rosa (Kayla Marshall), and Luke (Kyle Spears) are consistently convincing and adorable. They lament the holiday break assignment doled out with sadistic humor by their teacher. The assignment nonetheless is accepted with some degree of equanimity. “You don’t like homework because homework don’t like you.” The dialogue is clever, including a reference to “Auntie-no-kids” who outspends everyone in her gift-giving. There also is a reference to the serious fact, that not every student has the internet necessary to complete assignments in their homes.
That reference is an example of one of this play’s formidable strengths. In style, sound, and visuals, the production is an upbeat musical. The audience laughs, sways, claps, snaps, and ultimately sings along with the joy of it all. In the same production, embedded in the hilarity and fun, are serious lessons and, depending on your age, memories.
The kids try not to wake up Luke’s Grandad, but when they do, his means of assisting them with their ten-page homework assignment exceed their wildest dreams. Played with confidence and good comic timing by Sekou Calhoun, Grandad proudly explains the luxurious travel experience maintained by him and the other Pullman porters of yesteryear. It is worth remembering, even if hard to believe, that the vehicles of travel were once themselves a treasured experience (as opposed to the airport hellscape of the present day). Grandad dons the beautifully tailored work uniform of his pre-retirement years and guides the kids through a historic journey, aka, the titular Soul Train.
The reverberating sounds beat and whistle of a steam locomotive engulf the theater. Brown, Marshall, and Spears do a great job illustrating, through their amazing response, that the train is a time capsule. The students are sweetly surprised by all Grandad has to show them. Escaped slaves guided by stars, Civil Rights protests, the sights and sounds of Harlem, the birth of jazz and hip hop, toe-tapping dance contests, and ribald night club dialogue are among the historical escapades.
In Harlem, Santa Clause is a Civil Rights leader. The student trio (Brown, Marshall, and Spears) lock arms in trepidation as they form a protective outward-facing circle spinning amid the social upheaval. “Out of this trouble emerged Black pride,” they are told.
A century plus before the Civil Rights movement, slaves in the American South were guided by the drinking gourd and its north star. Sanesia Tillman’s powerful and simply gorgeous rendition of O Holy Night provides a spiritual respite. Tillman’s performance brings one of the themes to life, namely, the importance of faith in lifting up and sustaining survivors.
While there is a definite Christian theme, this play also sprinkles in something for Jewish atheists, as Grandad explains that the carol had been banned because of the identity of its composer and lyricist. You could say that at one point O Holy Night had been “canceled,” Grandad tells his grandson and two friends. Notably, the cancelation was not a good thing, considering the hymn was taken up by abolitionists, and Tillman’s talented vocals leave no doubt as to its musical worth.
Along with Tillman and Bennett, Devin Gaut II displays singing chops. His singing and dancing are great fun. Dameron Growe also is consistently funny, most particularly as a judge laying down the rules to contestants in an afro-height measuring contest. The literal ruler is brandished with all seriousness. Here and elsewhere, the comic and acting abilities of Shaundra Norwood and Crystal Williams are also on display. The history lesson also employs great humor when a conversation in an early Twentieth Century Harlem nightclub is “translated” from the slang of that time into the present vernacular.
The celebration of church blessing closes out the musical with audience participation and a theme of holiday gratitude. Lighting projection sets the scene by suggesting stained glass. The sound system is particularly well executed when the train comes to life. The play demands so many costume changes that at times they occur on stage.
The Jubilee Theatre is steps away from the picturesque Christmas tree towering over Fort Worth’s Sundance Square. Enjoying this musical with grandkids or other young relatives will be the perfect Christmas present for some theater patrons. Fast-paced, engaging, historic, and fun, Take the Soul Train to Christmas is an ideal outing for a family of all ages.
November 25 – December 23, 2022; matinees at 3 pm and evening shows at 8 pm
506 Main Street
Fort Worth, Texas 76102
For information and Tickets call 817 3383 4204 or go to https://www.jubileetheatre.org/s/Take-the-Soul-Train-to-Christmas/54