Gregory Emanuel Rahming in BUSTER! Photo: KyBlackRep.
BUSTER! A Gospel Musical In Concert
By Larry Muhammad
Directed by William P. Bradford II
Reviewed by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2015 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
While Louisville boasts, at any given moment, some two dozen theatre companies with local actors, directors, and technical crew, as well as a fair amount of playwrights working to develop their craft and find stages receptive to their work, there is a dearth of theatre with an African-American focus. There are two companies making an effort to consistently present Spanish-language plays, but one of the very few theatrical attempts to explore Black culture seems to be Larry Muhammad (Nipsey Green is another).
The prolific scribe has formed KyBlackRep as a forum to produce a series of plays about “African-American Bluegrass History.” In this inaugural production, he chooses a ripe subject in the life of social justice activist Reverend Louis Henry Coleman, Jr. A controversial but highly impactful firebrand, Coleman was a larger-than-life figure who effected substantive and very REAL change through his actions: hiring practices were updated to eliminate discrimination, large settlements resulted from city and state governments, and he forced an expansion of social equality at both an institutional and personal level.
That Mr. Muhammad chose Coleman as a subject at this time is more than fortuitous; the parallels to current events are unmistakably relevant. Coleman’s fight against police brutality resonates for all-too-obvious reasons, and his stance on Gay rights being the next step in the Civil Rights battle was years ahead of its time.
Muhammad captures much of the public figure, but it is the balance of the personal that lifts the play above mere docudrama. Coleman’s nickname, “Buster”, reflects his restless and rebellious youth, as well as the chaotic energy that drove him as an adult. As embodied in the irrepressible performance of Gregory Emanuel Rahming, the charismatic power of his personality explains how he became a forceful leader and catalyst for change. The playwright mostly celebrates the man, but he also includes important critical notes about Coleman getting swept up in the celebrity and cult of personality that blurred his judgment at times.
The remaining cast is a mix of actors and singers who, for the most part, acquit themselves well in both disciplines. Sheryl Rouse stands out as both a passionate vocalist and a solid actor as Mattie Earl Mathis, while Chauncey Arnold as Willie Gray and Shane “Antonio” Dickerson as Bobby Burks both give dynamic performances as two of Coleman’s followers. Ernie Adams brings a resonant singing voice that is truly memorable, and Samina Raza occupies important territory as Anne Braden, a vital ally in Coleman’s fight and a significant figure in her own right.
Alexandra Patrice Sweatt, Kristi Papailler, Marcus Fisher, and Marcus Orton all provide impactful moments in multiple roles. In one instance, Orton’s very slight costume change for the role of a junkie illustrated the thin line between “thug” and respectability. Of course, it was the work of an actor, but the unintentional effect, for at least this audience member, was further evidence of the depth of the production.
All the more remarkable perhaps that BUSTER! has the impact that it does, given that this is a “concert” presentation with the players mostly seated with scripts before them, but director William P. Bradford II breaks the format enough to allow fuller characterizations, even placing Coleman in the audience a time or two. Participation was encouraged when, in his curtain speech, Bradford invited the audience to “go to church,” and answer back if so moved by the play. The infectious music, an amalgam of existing and mostly recognizable melodies from gospel and popular forms, makes it easy to be engaged, and was expertly managed by Gayle King.
There might have been a bit of drag in the second act, but overall BUSTER! is a triumph: entertainment of the highest level carrying its message with force and clarity that steers clear of mawkish sentimentality. Mr. Muhammad may be guilty of a certain measure of didacticism, but perhaps the subject calls for it. Look around Louisville now and ask yourself, where are the Louis Colemans of today? In this new, “Post-racial” world in which we now live, with Black bodies in the streets and Black churches once again the site of violence, it certainly seems like there is a need. So the lessons of BUSTER! are well-timed.
BUSTER! A Gospel Musical In Concert
July 16, 17, 19, 23, 24, 25, 26 @ 7:30pm
$20 cash only at the door
At The Henry Clay Theatre
604 Third Street
Louisville, KY 40202
[box_light]Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being one of the hosts of PUBLIC on ARTxFM, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.[/box_light]