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Plays about Emmett Till, Billie Holiday and those fabulous Dreamgirls light up local stages


The cast of The Ballad of Emmett Till, now at the Fountain Theatre. Photo by Ed Krieger

February is Black History Month, but some of the shows appropriate to that designation will still be running long past the end of the month. Here are a few of the most notable of those productions:

The Ballad of Emmett Till, now at the Fountain Theatre thru Apr. 25
Outrage over the senseless murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till at the hands of three white men was the spark that ignited the Civil Rights movement. The Chicago-born Emmett loved to talk and tell jokes, and used whistling to help with a stutter born of a youthful bout with polio. In August of 1955, Emmett was visiting family in Mississippi when he innocently whistled at a white woman. For this “crime,” he was dragged out his bed in the middle of the night and was brutally tortured and killed. His tragic death is part of history – and this show – but the bulk of the production is a wildly poetic recounting of his “short, but not uneventful” life, infused with folk/jazz/gospel sensibilities and much good humor.

Shirley Jo Finney directs an exemplary cast that includes (L to R as pictured above) Rico E. Anderson, Adenrele Ojo, Bernard Addison, Lorenz Arnell, and Karen Malina White. Finney took over direction of the show when the original director, Ben Bradley, was murdered on Jan. 1. Says the Los Angeles Times, “Her (Finney) luminous staging stands as a fitting tribute to the beloved Bradley, whose own incandescent career was so shockingly extinguished.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION: The Ballad of Emmett Till at The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles. Performances: Thurs.-Sat. at 8pm; Sun. at 2pm thru Apr. 25. Tickets: $25-$28. Reservations: 323/663-1525 or click here. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

L to R: Adrienne Warren, Syesha Mercado, Moya Angela in Dreamgirls. Photo by Joan Marcus

Dreamgirls, now in previews at the Ahmanson Theatre. Opens Mar. 2, runs thru Apr. 4
A re-envisioned production of the ground-breaking hit musical that ran for 1,522 performances on Broadway, won six 1982 Tony Awards, and later became a motion picture by DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures.

Dreamgirls tells the rags-to-riches story of an up-and-coming 1960s singing girl group and the triumphs and tribulations that come with fame and fortune. This new production is directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom (Side Show, Broadway revivals of Bye Bye Birdie and Flower Drum Song), and co-choreographed by Shane Sparks. It introduces Moya Angela as Effie White and features, as The Dreams, Syesha Mercado as Deena Jones, Adrienne Warren as Lorrell Robinson, and Margaret Hoffman as Michelle Morris. Also featured are Chaz Lamar Shepherd as Curtis Taylor, Jr., Chester Gregory as James “Thunder” Early, Trevon Davis as C.C. White, Milton Craig Nealy as Marty Madison as well as Tallia Brinson, Felicia Boswell, Patrice Covington, Ronald Duncan, Talitha Farrow, Brittney Griffin, James Harkness, Robert Hartwell, Eric Jackson, Chauncey Jenkins, Jared Joseph, Nikki Kimbrough, Brittany Lewis, Douglas Lyons, Kimberly Marable, Jarran Muse, Amaker Smith and Marc Spaulding. Music is by Academy Award nominee Henry Krieger, with lyrics and book by Tony and Grammy Award winner Tom Eyen, and additional material by Willie Reale.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Dreamgirls at the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Performances: Tues.- Fri. at 8pm; Sat. at 2 and 8pm; Sun. at 1pm and 6:30pm. Dark on Mondays. Exceptions: No public performance on Wed., Mar. 10; added 2pm performance on Thurs., Apr. 1; no evening performance on Sun., Apr. 4. Tickets: $20-$95. Reservations: 213/972-4400, the Center Theatre Group box office, or click here. Running time: unknown.

Synthia L. Hardy as Billie Holiday. Photo courtesy of Plays411

 Billie! Backstage with Lady Day, now at the Whitefire Theatre thru Mar. 28
This solo show has been running for months on Sunday nights. Billie! Backstage with Lady Day was written by Emmy Award-winning actress/singer/dancer Synthia L. Hardy, who also stars as legendary jazz/blues singer Billie Holiday. Accompanist Lanny Hartley lends musical support as the Piano Man.

Bille! looks at the singer’s life, which was met with love, racism, addiction, deep disappointments and pain, and extraordinary success and adulation. The Tolucan Times calls Billie!, “…an undeniably honest, emotional, gritty chronicle of her rise and fall.” The paper also describes Hardy as “a dynamo, with a sparkling yet demure stage presence, in her own right, (who) realistically conveys Holiday’s glamorous aura, merely a facade of a tortured soul.”

Adds Don Grigware, of, “What is fascinating about this piece are all the little lesser known details of Holiday's life tapestry, like the deep love for her mother…how Billie was raped at age 10…and the difficulty for Holiday being the first black woman in an all white band (Artie Shaw). Details build methodically and meaningfully through Hardy's intense, intimate portrait and enrich one's understanding of Holiday's bitter yet compromised attitude. Hardy may not sound exactly like Holiday but does a fine job with 7 tunes within the structure of the piece.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Billie! Backstage with Lady Day at The Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Performances: Sundays at 3pm thru Mar. 28. Tickets: $20. Reservations: 323/960-4418, or online at Running time: 90 minutes.


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