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Sunday, 16 January 2011 22:26

Other voices, same room: Voices at the Missouri History Museum

Written by Andrea Braun
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Other voices, same room: Voices at the Missouri History Museum

Five of the most eloquent public figures of the past two centuries are brought together in F. Reed Brown's performance piece, Voices. All the words, including the lyrics to original music by Diane Huling, belong to Emily Dickinson (Siri Brobst), Anne Frank (Lauren Chapman), Langston Hughes (Ron Himes), Helen Keller (Maris Wolff) and Henry David Thoreau (T. Reed Brown who also conceived and compiled the show and directs).

As the lights go down, we hear their voices offstage uttering some of their more famous observations: "I'm nobody/Who are you?"; "I still believe people are really good at heart"; "What happens to a dream deferred?"; ""Life is either a grand adventure or nothing."; and "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." This is also how it ends, only we see them speaking. In between, the narrative is structured around universal themes such as success, dreams, nature, family, religion, entertainment, love, politics, war, death and nightmares.


The performers trade off, delivering their "greatest hits," with varying degrees of success. Each has his or her own little defined space. Thoreau, Dickinson and Hughes have writing desks (Thoreau also has a tree stump and some whittling equipment; Hughes an old-fashioned typewriter); Keller has books in Braille and writing tools beside a chair (though she seems to spend most of her time on the floor) and Frank has a cot and, of course, a pen and the famous diary, who she calls "Kitty." Each is wearing a period-appropriate costume, and Dickinson is in her trademark white.

Himes is excellent as Hughes. He ramps up the black patois to deliver Hughes' poetry and observations in a compelling manner. He even sings a bit of "The Weary Blues." Brown looks commanding as Thoreau and his delivery is strong, but occasionally marred by bobbled lines, a problem for Brobst, as well. It's clear that Wolff is a dancer because she expresses Keller's observations in both words and movement. She is able to be effective as both the child and adult Helen. Chapman is an appealing Anne Frank, and her girlhood hopes and dreams are, of course, colored by our knowledge of the horror that awaits her. In fact, of all the speakers, only Keller lived to old age.

Selections are mostly well-known, but not all of them, especially Helen Keller's. I was taken by Keller's wonder in a world she cannot see—no "quiet desperation" for her. Hughes died the year before Martin Luther King was assassinated, but since he was born in 1901, he was able to comment on the first half of the 20th century as a part of the Harlem Renaissance and was regarded in Europe as speaking for the entire African-American community. His writings are seldom bitter, but they are often biting. Thoreau's quotes mostly come from Walden. He was eloquent, but insufferably self-righteous much of the time, and that is obvious here. Dickinson's extraordinary poetry and her personal letters come out as a garbled purr in Brobst's delivery. She is the weakest link in this cast. Frank shares her diary while jumping on her bed (and once hiding under it when Hughes is reciting a poem that refers to "sirens," a nice touch) and generally acting innocently girlish, except when she's talking about sex.

And about the group's musings on love and passion: I'm puzzled by Brown's choice to direct the women to be so overtly physical in their depiction of longing. It's likely Frank died a virgin, but her portrayal of desire is graphic as she describes her curiosity about a friend's body and her wanting them to touch each other's breasts. Both Dickinson's and Keller's sexual orientations have been debated for years. Here it is made clear that Dickinson lusts more for her sister-in-law than her "Mr. Higginson," and her passion veered into territory that was a little uncomfortable to watch. When her scene ended, I felt like saying "I'll have what she's having." Since Keller's world was based on the tactile, her expression of longing didn't seem so odd. In all three cases though, I thought the physicality was overdone. And, the men didn't have to do it. Still, I understand that movement is just as important to Brown's concept as the words.

The five interact only occasionally, once playing trees for Helen to feel (they don blindfolds to emphasize her experience) and there are a couple of other places where their bodies intersect, but they primarily work alone except for three black-clad singers (JT Ricroft, Jennifer Kelley and Kelly Ross) who wander in and out, singing snatches of songs whose lyrics come from the writers. They also sometimes stand around the speakers and mimic their movements and gestures. Still, I don't know why they're present at all because, while all are talented vocalists, they seem extraneous.

I think Voices is a good idea that could use more revision. I'd like to see Brown take his own character's advice and "Simplify!" Lose the singers, tone down the exaggerated body language and let these American icons speak for themselves unadorned. They are all important figures in our history, culture and art, and an audience doesn't need too many distractions from their eloquent words.

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