Uplifting ‘Train’ still on the right track
Bernell Lassai (from left), Jazelle Morriss and Toni Lynice Fountain appear in "Train is Comin.'" | Photo by Pete Byer
Open Door Repertory Company, 902 S. Ridgeland Ave., Oak Park
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays; through May 20
$23 for general admission; $20 seniors; $17 students
(708) 342-0810 or visit www.opendoorrep.org
Updated: April 17, 2012 9:29PM
Never underestimate the power of a heartfelt song and a determined bunch of singers. That’s a message that stands out in McKinley Johnson’s stirring play, “Train Is Comin’,’’ during which audiences get plenty of opportunities to enjoy the harmonious voices of Open Door Repertory Company’s terrific cast.
In this uplifting production, Johnson wears three hats — playwright, director and choreographer — to deliver this dramatized account of events from the 1870s recounting the struggle for survival that challenged the nation’s earliest institution of higher learning for African Americans.
In 1871, five years after its founding, Fisk University in Tennessee found itself on shaky financial ground, its future uncertain.
To raise needed funds, a white professor led nine students, all freed slaves, to form an a capella choir that became widely known as the Fisk Jubilee Singers. They embarked on a concert tour that took them around the country and eventually to Europe. Despite a touch-and-go start, the persistent group succeeded beyond all expectations.
Actor Dale Glanzman, as Mr. White, proves an effective pilot in guiding the fledgling choir that’s given a powerful voice by Toni Lynice Fountain, David Davis, Eric A. Lewis, Qiana McNary, Dominique Reid, Jazelle Morriss, Bernell Lassai, Tierra Whetstone, and Willie Charles Rollins.
The journey sorely tested the character, faith and
judgment of the Fisk emissaries. The group had to travel in a train caboose and face other indignities including frosty behavior by prejudiced innkeepers and restaurant managers that put actual, as well as emotional roadblocks in their path as they sought lodging and food on the road.
At one town in the Northeast, the choir had a frightening encounter with a drunken, hostile crowd. Putting their trust in God, the choir bravely broke into an inspirational religious song to defuse the tense situation.
Initially, choir members sang only patriotic ballads and spirituals such as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” They steered clear of songs from their days on the plantation. As one performer observed, those songs were personal and spoke of “our pride, fears and dreams.”
However, once they agreed to share these intimate memories, the strong emotional response to “No More Auction Block,” “These Are My Father’s Children,” “Get On Board” and others struck a nerve and suddenly trainloads of people showed up to hear the Jubilee Singers and support their cause.
Kristen Ahern’s period costumes capture the era and are especially effective late in the play when the cast, in formal attire, stands in tribute in front of a projected sepia-toned image showing the original Jubilee Singers.
“Train Is Comin’ ” was first performed at the Chicago Theatre Company in early 1996 when it won audiences and earned critical acclaim. In the intervening years, it has lost none of its impact and appeal.