By Roz Friedman
Now through August 15, Hartford Stage in collaboration with The Connecticut Theater Festival is presenting Sheila’s Day, a unique musical piece of history conceived and written by Duma Ndlova, co-created with Mbongeni Ngama with additional material by Ebony Jo-Ann. It was originally commissioned by and produced at the Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, NJ in 1989, and has toured extensively throughout the last twenty years. This theater company, founded in 1978 by Ricardo Khan and L. Kenneth Richardson with the intent to explore the African Diaspora, won the 1999 Tony Award for outstanding regional theatre in America. While Hartford Stage is under reconstruction, this play is being presented by at the Roberts Theater of the Kingswood –Oxford School, a beautiful private high school in West Hartford.
This present production is directed by Ricardo Khan, based in part on original staging by Mbogeni Ngema. Ten women, in this case, very gifted actresses, tell the story of servitude and African-American history in Perry County, Alabama, U.S. and Soweto Township, South Africa. It is an interesting concept that for the most part works. Through a series of flowing vignettes, interspersed with pulsating songs, gospel, blues and Zulu chants, we follow the stories of “Sheila’s,” domestic workers who get only Thursday off; these are women who pursue their modest dreams of getting and holding a job under very difficult circumstances. They are called Sheila’s because their employers can’t pronounce or remember their actual names.
Ann Duquesnay with a wonderfully authoritative voice gives a powerful rendition of the American Ruby Lee, who in 1955 is riding on a bus—the very same bus that Rosa Parks is on, where she protests being sent to the back. Ruby Lee is furious, knowing that she will be late for work and will eventually lose her job. This is an amusing point of view which follows through when protesteting sit-ins again ruin her job as a dishwasher in Woolworth’s. At the same time, Qedusizi, played by the extraordinary Thuli Dumakude, is fighting for freedoms in her country and pays a terrible price.
All ten sing and dance with great fervor. However their same costumes, black with blue cloth that wrap around their waists or tops, sometimes make it difficult to follow their characters. But all in all the 90 minute exploration without intermission is a moving experience.