As a proud Harlem resident, I considered it a privilege to be witness to the triumph of Daniel Beaty’s latest work, “Tearing Down the Walls,” now playing at the Riverside Theatre through May 29th. To attend this world premiere musical about Harlem is to take part in a community forum, where the audience’s reaction and journey is as much a part of the event as the action on stage. From the moment the character of the Angel Unaware enters from the back of the house, you will begin to feel the buzz around you, and the next two hours will allow you to sigh, laugh, cry, and “mmmhmm” with your neighbors in a spirit of solidarity that is unique to our community.
A tremendous team assembled by Voza Rivers/New Heritage Theatre Group and Walk Tall Girl Productions features Oscar and Grammy nominated songwriting team Jamal Joseph and Charles Mack. Daniel Beaty’s signature spoken word and socially driven messages shine. The cast showcases particularly strong and subtle performers who deliver the goods vocally, and dramatically. Dietrice Bolden, Umi Shakti, Adrienne C. Moore, Rumando Kelley, Jevon McFerrin, and Kelechi Ezie could all be R&B vocal stars in their own rights, but chose to lend their enormous talents to an ensemble cast that allows each one to shine, while still blowing us away with their group choral numbers.
The themes that the play addresses are by no means typical musical content. True to Daniel Beaty’s past performances, this show focuses on the story of a young woman in Harlem facing love, disease, pregnancy, and the historical legacy of the black community of Harlem among a rapidly gentrifying landscape. Beaty references the “restaurant row on 8th avenue” and the of-the-moment crisis facing those being displaced as a result of raising property value. The show effectively hits the nail on the head and synthesizes the concerns of long time residents with the hope and inspiration that comes with the Second Renaissance.
At times the plot feels formulaic, relying heavily on the frequently used “uptight virgin heroine” that we have seen and loved in other musicals like “Grease,” “The Music Man,” “The King and I,” etc. The character Renee, played by Umi Shakti has a predictable arc, but there are enough twists and turns along the way to keep us rooting for her. Combined with her two best girlfriends, played by the twin tornados of vocal and stage presence, Dietrice Bolden, and Kelechi Ezie, the three women create a modern day trio that give a nod to “Dreamgirls” and the Supremes. Ezie plays Jessica, a siren who warns us of “the price you pay when you’re pretty.” Bolden as Ronda reveals the duel between the “beauty and the beast” inside of her and recognizes her rage towards men, and inclination to “kick ass,” before it’s too late.
Similarly, the two male characters played by Rumando Kelley and Jevon McFerrin play foils of one another. Like in Beaty’s earlier spoken word piece “Nigga vs. Nerd,” these two men have drastically different approaches to life and their relationship with women. While McFerrin plays Dennis, Renee’s shy and bookish boss and sings to Renee “Talk to me,” while Kelley’s character Tyson croons “I’ll show you.” In one particularly (ahem) stimulating moment, Tyson appears on stage wearing only bright orange underwear and Timberland boots to deliver his “P.S.A.- Playa Service Announcement.” Besides the shock value, Tyson demystifies the playa mentality, revealing his own role in the cycle of single motherhood.
Though Renee’s mother and father are dead, she receives the warmth and protection of several mother figures, all played by the astoundingly versatile and captivating Adrienne C. Moore. The little old ladies in hats cooed and cawed after her every move. Playing five distinct women, each lovable in their own way, Moore’s characters created a through-line for the play, linking the characters together, advancing the plot, and delivering Beaty’s message of female empowerment and grace. As Renee’s grandmother with Alzheimer’s disease she provides a beacon of compassion and wisdom that remind us of the importance of honoring and listening to the history that our elders have to share with us.
In perhaps her most memorable role, Moore plays Mrs. Pearl Rodgers, a longtime resident of Harlem who faces eviction as her building is nearly bought by a condominium development company. She represents the feisty determination, and lovable defender of the community she has always called home. Sniffs and sighs are heard as she belts out the powerful number, “Harlem Would You Let Me Stay?” Her no nonsense voice of reason resonates with the audience and empowers them to fight for what they love.
The music is catchy and deeply moving rich in major chords, harmony, and gospel inspired solos and resolutions. However this decisively Christian message is a bit overwhelming at one point when Renee’s crisis is at its peak. Understandably, Harlem is a community strongly rooted in its faith, and the “grace” bestowed on her from the Angel is what restores Renee and delivers our happy ending. Whether you chose Mrs. Rodgers pragmatic approach, or the route of faith in good things to come, Beaty offers plenty of hope, joy, and a strong feeling of solidarity to the Harlem community. He waves that flag proudly, and holds it out for you to take it.
“Tearing Down the Walls” book and lyrics by Daniel Beaty, music by Jamal Joseph and Charles Mack, plays at the Riverside Theatre, 91 Claremont Ave, NYC through May 29th – Thursday thru Saturday at 8 PM; Saturday and Sunday at 3 PM. Tickets are available through http://www.theriversidetheatre.org or by calling 212.870.6784