Theatre Reviews
The cast of "Hold On." Photo by Keshon Campbell, used by permission.

The Black Rep opens its 47th season with the world premiere of “Hold On” by Paul Webb. Mr. Webb is the screenwriter of the 2014 film “Selma” and “Hold On” is his play based on the film. It follows the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic campaign for black voting rights in 1965 that resulted in President Lyndon Johnson’s speech to the joint session of Congress and ultimate enactment of the Voting Rights Act. At the heart of the play is the relationship between two strong willed leaders, doing everything in their power to remain calm in tumultuous times and, no matter what, not back down from what they believe is the moral high ground and the most important task at hand. For Martin Luther King Jr. that task is organizing and participating in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, after the murder of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson, in order to shine a light on the injustice of voting rights for Black Americans in the United States.

For the most part, Webb constructs an intriguing depiction of the events leading up to the Selma march through to LBJ’s speech to congress. The storyline of Annie Lee Cooper, a nursing home worker who is arrested for punching Selma Sherriff Jim Clark while attempting to register to vote, is particularly moving. Enoch King, as Martin Luther King Jr., and Brian Dykstra, as Lyndon Johnson, lead the cast masterfully in their portrayals of two leaders on the verge of a civil war. Eric Dean White as racists Alabama Governor George Wallace and Selma Sheriff Clark is skin crawlingly effective in his renditions. Tamara Thomas plays Annie Lee Cooper with emotional perfection. The entire cast of fourteen are terrific with not one false note among them. Director, and Artistic Director, Ron Himes does a tremendous job keeping the pace moving with 8 scenes in act 1 and thirteen in act 2.

Walking into the Edison Theatre on opening night the first thing that struck me was the enormous replica of the oval office with the presidential seal taking center stage. Having the White House overshadow the story and having non-White House scenes squeezed into the outskirts is very effective and brings the other action to the foot of the stage and forefront quite successfully.  Set Designer Dunsi Dai builds a fascinating stage picture all around. Zach Cohn compliments the sets with projections behind the oval office. Marc W. Vital II depicts the 1960’s appropriately with picture perfect costumes.

“Hold On” is, sadly, as timely a story today as it was in 1965. The play could use some cutting as it comes in at 2 hours forty minutes and there are several places where it could end beautifully. Mr. Webb, like many playwrights, tries to tell too many stories and one or two get lost along the way. But all in all it is well acted and worth seeing, and The Black Rep is the perfect company for this world premiere.

“Hold On”, presented by The Black Rep, is at the Edison Theatre and runs through January 28th. For tickets and information go to The Black Rep website.

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