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Hang on a minute: Let me take off my earrings and hand ’em to my homegirl. ’Cause that’s the kind of review The Women of Brewster Place, a scandalously misbegotten muddle of a musical from a theater that ought to have better sense, is about to get.
Where to start? With the characters, reduced from complicated human beings to mere types? With the music, an indifferent pastiche of ’70s soul when it’s not a direct rip-off of something memorable? With the dialogue, sparse but still so numbingly expositional—so thoroughly unlike anything actual people would say—that you end up wishing it were sparser? With the staging, which shuffles performers on and off like so many automatons?
How about we start with the Act 2 scene about an abortive meeting of the Brewster Place Tenants Association—during which, as God is my witness, one admirably game actress is asked to stop for a slow burn, pointedly remove her earrings, and start a hair-snatching, caterwauling food fight with the neighborhood busybody?
Tim Acito, who’s responsible for the book, the lyrics, and the music of this adaptation, writes in the Arena Stage playbill that he was inspired by the downright Shakespearean plots and the richly drawn characters of Gloria Naylor’s novel. If the original’s really that good—I confess I’ve never read it—this disastrous mess is all the more regrettable. Because Naylor’s interlocking series of stories, said to be a moving literary depiction of the lives of seven African-American women living in an isolated, decaying housing development, has been watered down, narrowed down, and brought down to the lowest common denominator in the effort to spoon-feed the saga to the audience.
The thing is, that’s not necessary: Make art, dammit, and audiences will consume it with a ferocious hunger. In fact, there’s already a musical about seven black women grappling with what it means to be a black woman in a white man’s world; it’s called For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, and 30-odd years after its Broadway premiere, it’s considered something of a classic, not least because its language is as fierce and hair-raising as the brutal stories it tells. I’d bet Arena’s audience—the African-American segment of it, the pale-male segment of it, the younger segment of it, the older segment of it, and whatever’s left—would rise to the occasion of a world-premiere musical that was anywhere near as ambitious, a musical that didn’t condescend, that didn’t assume they were too lazy to listen and to think and to feel.
The Women of Brewster Place, I’m sad to say—no, I’m enraged to say—isn’t that musical.