Naima Dawson is a published author, Chicago playwright, and professor. Her career accomplishments cover more than 20 years in Arts Entertainment. Her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago and her Master of Education from DePaul University solidifies her ability to bridge the two worlds between Arts and Education. She is the writer and producer of Your Call! Late Night Improv & Sketch Comedy for Grown Folks, as seen in production at the Apollo Theater and The Mercury Theater.
(Road Ranger sung by Peter Brian Kelly and ensemble. Photo credit: Erik Watkins)
Through traditional and shoulder rocking, testifying, gospel music, WAKING LAZARUS – Prologue Theatre’s new world-premiere musical by Curtis Edwin Powell – threads a familiar story of how the holier-than-thou freely passes judgment upon others, before taking note of one’s own less than perfect reflection. ‘LAZARUS’ occurs in the past and present – amidst the 1967 racial upheaval in over 150 American cities, a young musician looks for comfort in the form of his neighborhood gospel choir, while in present-day a choir director of a mega-church tries to keep his sexual orientation under wraps. The musical successfully deals with a lot of discussion-worthy current issues, driven by the stirring falsetto of Noah and Paul, both played by Nick Shoda.
Randolph Johnson delivers a stunning bass-baritone for Dad and Jordan, and there were some surprising breakout moments that came from smaller roles. Sister Wikins (Renee Locket) gives some deep soul-reviving gospel singing while Maggie (Rena Ahmed) provides solid background vocals as one of the choir members. Ahmed’s voice truly resonated within the group choir scenes. Both actors are incredible vocalists but were perhaps underutilized in the production. The highlight for me came in the form of sarcastic comedy and songs delivered by Kevin Webb, who plays Tex. His charisma and stage presence directed straight at the audience was engaging and energizing. It was incredibly enjoyable to watch Webb bring Tex to life on stage.
The leads (Johnson and Shoda) were each faced with the difficult challenge of portraying two characters from two different time periods, but there were few distinguishing factors, which sometimes created confusion in understanding the character’s place in time. The transition between time periods could have been enhanced through clothing that reflects the era or by developing a more detailed set to capture recognizable artifacts from the 60’s, but the minimalist set design restricted the actors, requiring them to force a lot of moments in the play that weren’t quite satisfying. The Hairpin Art Center is a unique Logan Square theater space that’s far away from a stage and curtain atmosphere. Though the $32 ticket price is reasonable, it might come as a surprise to some as they enter the alternative open space, adorned with an array of mismatched foldout chairs for seating. It’s quite reminiscent of an outdoor church revival, and perhaps that was the overall intended goal. I truly appreciated the space, and the effort by the actors to bring it to life.
Though there were a few minor missteps in design and direction, the music was truly the driving force of this production. Powell’s composition developed in a manner that authentically captures the spirit and tension within in the story. The live band was dynamic. Though hidden behind a screen, their sound was perfection, electrifying each singer’s performance. WAKING LAZARUS is a hidden gem and a must-see musical that genuinely raises critical questions about gender, race, and spirituality within society.