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Making 'Sistahs' Sing: It's All Relative

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 8, 2007; C05

Composer William Hubbard and writer-lyricist-director Thomas W. Jones II also work as performers and so they know how to put their music where their mouths are. "That's the power of their collaboration to me," says actress-singer Crystal Fox. "Because they're actors . . . I think they have a sort of character about the music as well."

Fox, Felicia Curry and Bernardine Mitchell play the contentious adult siblings in "Three Sistahs," the Hubbard-Jones show based on a story by Janet Pryce and inspired in part by Chekhov's "Three Sisters," revisiting MetroStage in Alexandria through Sept. 9.

"The beauty of this piece is that the music makes sense," observes Curry, who plays the youngest sister, Irene, a college girl with a 'fro who agitates against the Vietnam War and for civil rights. "There's never a moment when these women open their mouths to sing a song that doesn't make sense in the story they're trying to tell," she says.

Fox plays Marsha, the unhappily married middle sister, and Mitchell plays the eldest, Olive, a college professor. The three have gathered at their childhood home, circa 1969, after the funeral of their brother, a casualty of the Vietnam War.

One of the goals in shaping the musical was to make the songs "a part of the conversation in a living room, rather than stopping and doing a big song and dance," Jones says. He just writes dialogue and when characters seem compelled to rise from prose into poetry, "I can hear that progression. I can hear them go from spoken to sung text." Hubbard then finds the music to express the lyrics.

Curry calls Hubbard a "genius," but the composer says he doesn't know "if that's particularly genius or just something that feels right and you go with it."

Jones finds Hubbard's creative process fascinating. "It's so internal. He'll stop playing for a minute. He'll either tap on the keyboard or tap on his chest. He goes back to the piano," Jones says, "and all of a sudden this thing comes out."

What comes out in "Three Sistahs," Hubbard says, are "gospel influences, there are certainly R&B influences, there are a little bit of standard, old standard jazz things. It . . . runs the gamut . . . some of it is just a song -- it doesn't have to be categorized." Hubbard, who plays keyboard live from the sound booth at the performances, got his love of music in all its forms listening to the jukebox in his grandmother's restaurant in Alexandria, where he grew up and still lives. He also remembers her radio in the back, tuned to gospel stations.

He and Jones have reached a point of trust, Hubbard says, so that if a song works, fine, and if not, "we're not locked in and the song police are not going to come and arrest me. . . . It is really a wonderful atmosphere that Tom and I have created, and to me, it's essential to what we do and how we work."

Since MetroStage first presented "Three Sistahs" in 2002, Jones has discarded subplots and tightened the story. And he sees new parallels in it. "Four years ago, it was a nostalgia piece . . . three women, three different generations, trying to find their way back to each other," he observes. "The last four years, Iraq and Afghanistan have really made the thing resonate in different ways."