'Three Sistahs' And Two Reunions
By Christina Talcott
Friday, August 10, 2007; WE19
On a recent sweltering Saturday afternoon, the MetroStage theater was nearly packed, thanks in part to more than 70 members of the Bartee family, celebrating Day Three of their family reunion.
Visiting from around the country, the Bartees had descended on the theater in Old Town Alexandria in two coach buses to see "Three Sistahs," part gospel- and R&B-tinged musical, part serious Chekhov-inspired drama, back for another run after its 2002 debut at MetroStage. After trips to New York and Atlanta, these "Sistahs" are back where they began.
After the show, family reunion organizer Tobey Bartee was directing traffic in the parking lot when he pulled aside his cousin RoSusan Bartee, a professor of education at the University of Mississippi. Going to the play had been her idea; she found the show online while researching reunion activities.
"It's very timely," she said of the show. "It touched on all the important aspects of what family is all about."
With a story by
Janet Pryce, book and lyrics by Thomas W. Jones and music by William
Hubbard, the show earned a Helen Hayes
nomination for Outstanding New Musical in 2002. They took the show to
The play started out as the brainchild of writer-actor Pryce, who, Jones recalls, performed in a production of 19th-century Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's "Three Sisters" and imagined creating a play with "shades of these characters and setting it in an African American context." She asked veteran playwright Jones to sketch out her vision. Jones called on Hubbard to write the music. (Hubbard plays the keyboard for every performance during the show's current run.)
Making it a musical was a no-brainer, Jones says, since music "can do in a note, can do in a chord, what language takes a minute to do." He calls the play, which features non-musical dialogue and full-on, choreographed songs, "lyric realism." He says he and Hubbard shaped "Three Sistahs" by "looking at the American musical and how can you revitalize it. It's not like a traditional musical where you stop and just sing. We wanted to minimize the number of places where there's applause" to play up the intimacy of the story.
Of course, as Jones points out, the play has taken on a different relevance since its conception.
initially [wrote] it," Jones says, "it was
before the Iraq
war." Now, more so than in 2002, audiences might recognize the situations:
the brother killed at war, arguments about whether the
"I think it resonates in far more ways than just a nostalgia piece," Jones says. It's about "larger social and political upheaval, people who are standing up against the war being called unpatriotic, families trying to find a bridge back to each other."
It's not just the
Vietnam War that touches the lives of these three sisters. They recall the year
before, when they last gathered to bury their father, when
Jones says that
although he grew up in
To write one of the songs, "Summer of Smoke," he says he drew on "those kinds of impressions and images in my head, and remembering that year, where there were riots around the country, listening to impassioned conversations around the dinner table . . . people trying to stay in the same room with each other when they have such strong opinions."
That family tension threatens to tear apart Olive, Marsha and Irene, and Jones describes the underlying theme as "people looking to heal." It's about family -- whether it's three sisters or busloads of Bartees -- and a challenge, Jones says, that diverse audiences can relate to: "Trying to find your way back to somebody you care about really has no race or class or gender distinction."