We know what happened with Latté Da’s 2019-20 season. After a smash hit “Chicago” (extended twice) came the return of the deeply moving “All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914” (and its filming for PBS broadcast in 2020), then the dark and steamy “The House of Bernarda Alba,” then the virus.
Peter Rothstein’s version of “La Bohème,” Puccini’s opera distilled to its essence, was supposed to open on March 14. It never had a chance. Same for “Twelve Angry Men,” an intriguing new musical based in the 1957 TV play, and the 2019 “NEXT Festival.”
In May, Latté Da announced there would be no 2020-21 season. Instead, the company would focus on making new work, then reopen for 2021-22. Rothstein and Associate Artistic Director Elissa Adams would lead something called the NEXT UP Laboratory, with plans to complete Terrence McNally’s final play and create several more.
From now through Aug. 16, we have the sudden, unexpected chance to see part of a new musical. The first two acts of “Broadbend, Arkansas” already exist as a co-production by Transport Group Theater and the Public Theater that Rothstein and Adams saw and loved in New York City last fall. A live performance filmed by the Transport Group has been made available for streaming.
The music is by Ted Shen, the Act I book and lyrics are by Ellen Fitzhugh, and the Act II book and lyrics are by Harrison David Rivers. That’s a name familiar to Twin Cities theatergoers. Latté Da has already produced two plays by Rivers, “Five Points” (2018”) and “To Let Go and Fall” (2019). Rivers’ “This Bitter Earth” (2018) was produced by Penumbra. “A Crack in the Sky” (2018), written with Ahmed Isail Yusuf, premiered at the History Theatre, and “the bandaged place” had a reading at the Playwright’s Center (2019).
Rivers will write a third act for “Broadbend, Arkansas” for a new version Latté Da will produce in 2022.
In a video conversation with Adams, Rivers describes the musical as “an intergenerational story” of “how a particular Black family moves through the world, and how specifically they interact with the police.”
In Act I, we meet Benny Tate (Justin Cunningham), a Black orderly at an all-white nursing home in 1961, the year of the Freedom Riders. Caught up in the movement, arrested and jailed, this kind, serious single father of twin girls Sam and Ruby learns what he is, who he is and what he’s capable of.
Act II jumps forward 27 years to 1988. It’s about Ruby (Danyel Fulton), now a 30-year-old single mother of a Black teenage boy. Named Ben, after Ruby’s father, he has been stopped by police and badly beaten. When Ruby sees him in the hospital, she flees to the cemetery where her father is buried, to look back over her life, scream her frustration and seek advice.
Each act is essentially a musical monologue, except for a few moments in Act II, when Cunningham joins Fulton on stage. In Act I, Cunningham plays three roles: Benny, a white woman named Bertha who’s his patient, and a white woman named Julynne who runs the nursing home. Fulton plays one role, Ruby. Shen’s score is performed by a six-piece orchestra.
Continuing the story of generational trauma, Rivers will tell the story of Ruby’s son Ben. And that’s all we know, except between last fall and now, George Floyd was killed by police, and that’s on Rivers’ mind.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time,” he told Adams. “The ‘this’ of that statement is the fight to be seen as a full human, in the fullness of humanity. That’s something ‘Broadbend’ is grappling with, this idea of being seen and being heard.”
We watched both acts yesterday. Cunningham and Fulton gave powerful performances. The musical isn’t quite there yet, but remember, Act III is coming. (Acts I and II together are about 90 minutes, so there’s room.) Sometimes the sound of the orchestra overwhelmed the sound of the singing. We didn’t really care. We’re starved for theater and were glad for this sneak peek at something we’ll see again, in a different time and a different version.
You can watch the live stream for free, but donations to Black Theatre Network are encouraged. If you watch it soon, you can also sign up for a free live discussion with the cast and creative team at 6 p.m. CST on July 23 (that’s Thursday night). You’ll learn more about that when you register.
More postponements, cancellations and changes
JazzMN Orchestra has canceled its October and December 2020 concerts. If you were hoping to see Brazilian vocalist Luciana Souza sing with the band under JC Sanford’s direction in October, so were we. That concert has been rescheduled for April 26, 2021.
The Twin Cities Early Music Festival has been postponed to 2021. TCEM had planned to partner with the Historical Keyboard Society of North America and the Jurow International Harpsichord Competition, which were both coming to Minneapolis; those have also been postponed. In the interim, TCEM will present recorded concerts online. Each will be preceded by a virtual cocktail party with real cocktail recipes you can try at home.
The Source Song Festival will go on, but virtually, starting Monday, Aug. 3. In preparation, the award-winning mezzo soprano Clara Osowski, one of Source’s artistic co-directors (the other is Mark Bilyeu), was painting rocks earlier this week with the distinguished composer Libby Larson. We trust that everything will soon be made clear.
All remaining Open Streets Minneapolis events for 2020 have been canceled. Open Streets Franklin, East Lake and Northeast already fell under the ax. Open Streets West Broadway, Nicollet, Lyndale and Minnehaha are the latest and last to go. See you next year, Open Streets.