Earnest, Yet Less Than Satisfying

By Geary Danihy

Sometimes a production can be just a bit too earnest – its heart is in the right place (often on its sleeve), its politics are au courant, and its viewpoint is such that to even consider disagreement or disinterest is to cast oneself into the darkness. Such is the case with “Sheila’s Day,” the first offering of the Hartford Stage’s 2010-2011 season.

Produced in collaboration with The Connecticut Theater Festival, this 90-minute paean to black women’s spirituality and courage in the face of adversity, conceived and written by Duma Ndlovu and co-created by Mbongeni Ngema, both of whom were born in South Africa, is a hybrid: part play, part musical and part social critique. As with most theatrical hybrids, certain of its elements are very entertaining but, under the direction of Ricardo Kahn, it tries to do too much and thus ends up failing to fully satisfy, mainly because, rather than making us care, it demands that we care.

The work gets its title from the weekday – Thursday – in South Africa when the female hired help were given a day off. Since most white families never bothered to learn the names of the women who were serving them, these women were collectively referred to as “Sheila” – hence “Sheila’s Day.”

However, the focus is not just on South Africa, for the playwrights have woven the story of South Africa’s indigenous people’s struggle against apartheid into that of the  black Americans fight for equal rights during the Civil Rights movement. This is accomplished by following two women: Ruby Lee (Ann Duquesnay), a young woman who unwittingly becomes involved in some of the key Civil Rights events of the mid-twentieth century, and Qedusizi Maphalala (Thuli Dumakude), who in her search for work is swept up into the protests against the restriction of movement imposed on blacks in South Africa.

Given that much of the evening is devoted to the songs and spirituals that the women on both continents sang to increase their feelings of solidarity and to express their manifest fears, concerns and beliefs, character development is slight. We understand that both Ruby and Qedusizi are reluctantly drawn into their peoples’ struggles for freedom and equality, but that’s about as far as it goes.

The music, under the direction of Thuli Dumakude, is performed with verve, joy and sincerity, and it is by far the best part of “Sheila’s Day,” although after a while the numbers seem to merge together, a response perhaps exacerbated by the fact that Sasha Ehlers’ costumes, composed in muted colors, are all of a piece and thus do little to distinguish the 10 actresses performing the numbers.

The storyline isn’t really strong enough to hold the audience. Although the two main characters have names, we understand that we are watching “types” meant to be more representational than realistic. Yet, many a musical has succeeded with such limited characterizations. However, it is the social critique aspects of the play that make it often seem more lecture than lyrical celebration.  

At one point, the famous sit-in at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, is dramatized. A “white” resident is interviewed – she makes the expected racist remarks – and with this, four or five of the cast members, acting as reporters, rush out into the audience to get quotes. It’s a bit heavy-handed, as is the caricature of the store’s owner and, in another scene, the portrayal of a South African policeman. The targets are simply fish in a barrel.

All in all, this “show with a message” is best enjoyed for its spirit, rhythms and lyricism. It pleases the ear, eventually dulls the eye, and leaves the heart surprisingly unmoved.

“Sheila’s Day” runs through Sunday, August 15. It is at the Roberts Theater on the campus of the Kingswood-Oxford School in West Hartford, the Hartford Stage’s summer home while the Main Stage in Hartford undergoes renovations. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to www.hartfordstage.org.

This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.

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