'Three Sistahs' And Two Reunions

By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
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 New York and Atlanta, Jones says, to "workshop it, retooling it and retooling it." Now "it's far more intimate . . . far more internal in the relationship with these three women," he says.

Set in Washington in 1969, the sisters have gathered at their late parents' home for the funeral of their younger brother, who was killed in Vietnam. Olive (Bernardine Mitchell), the oldest, is a professor who longs for a husband and children. The cynical Marsha (Crystal Fox) is in a turbulent marriage but living comfortably in suburban Cleveland. Irene (Felicia Curry), the youngest sister, rails against the Vietnam War, the patriarchy and her sisters' life choices.

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.

"When I 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 United States should end the war or keep fighting. MetroStage's Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin says "Three Sistahs" is "just as relevant as it was five years ago and if we'd done it 30 years ago."

"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 Washington was aflame in the riots in the wake of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Jones says that although he grew up in New York, Washington's 1968 riots are burned in his memory. "I remember going back to D.C. after the riots with a friend of my father's and seeing where the sky was red. I remember him showing us whole swaths of the city that had been burned," he says.

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."