Real Music History

Facing a budget shortfall for the last production of his Shadow Theatre Company's sixth season, artistic director Jeffrey Nickelson decided to make a virtue of necessity. He ditched expensive plans to stage The Old Settler and teamed with associate artistic director Hugo Jon Sayles to create Sweet Corner Symphony, a doo-wop a cappella concert that takes advantage of the deep, rich pool of Denver singing talent and uses a whisper-thin, seductive tease of a plot to hold the songs together.

The set comes in shades of blue -- the stoop in front of a house, a pale moon, a corner street lamp. The first minutes of the evening are given over to rhythmic city sounds. One by one, the characters enter, experience the sounds and the ambience of the corner -- each in his or her own way -- and leave. A drunk lolls on the steps of the stoop, clutching his bottle in a crumpled paper bag. A woman with a Nefertiti hairdo strolls through. There's something about the lamppost that affects everyone who passes, and it gets stroked, lightly touched, gazed at, sometimes danced with.

The singing is amazing. Vincent Robinson, Ed Battle, Ken Parks, Dwayne Carrington and Hugo Jon Sayles make as tight and talented a group as I can imagine. Starting with Bob Marley's "Buffalo Soldier," they illuminate the history of the form, singing a few well-known titles ("Swanee" gets the group's own satiric spin), as well as dozens of lesser-known songs. Through most of the evening, Ken Parks serves as lead singer, and he's mesmerizing -- tall and heavy-set, wearing a gold-and-black dashiki, deploying his strong, mellow, expressive voice, shaking his head, gesturing, constantly on the move and giving each moment everything he's got. Dwayne Carrington provides powerful, reverberating support with his bass baritone, and Hugo Sayles deploys a terrific falsetto. Vince Robinson radiates rhythmic good humor, and Ed Battle -- another knockout performer -- has a couple of moving solos, including a version of the Lord's Prayer.

Periodically, the drunk -- played by Timothy C. Johnson -- staggers into the center of the group and tries to sing with the other men, only to be ignored or driven away by their indifference and contempt. Lea Chapman, the Nefertiti woman, crosses the stage silently several times. I'm not sure I understood everything she represented (the Nefertiti wig was doffed early in the evening; she wore a different costume for almost every entry), but Chapman is a beautifully enigmatic presence on stage. Early in Sweet Corner, she performed an earth-beating African dance; later, as the men sang "Dream," she moved among them in a gauzy white dress. It was clear that this mysterious woman held serious power. She had the ability to stop and start the action, set the men singing or silence them. Every sideways glance held some fascinating but unreadable meaning. When the drunk launched into an ungainly version of "Two Silhouettes on the Shade," Chapman's proud smile and enthusiastic clapping contrasted with the other characters' disgust.

Sweet Corner Symphony yields many delights: fine singing, a treasure trove of songs, an informed evocation of black and musical history. Above all, there are the generous-hearted performances, the actors' clear delight in what they are doing, and an overarching theme of affirmation and reconciliation.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman