Strong women take stage to tell their tales




A comedian, a female preacher, a blues singer, an ex-slave, two civil rights activists and a battered but unbowed victim of the Ku Klux Klan. The strong portrayals of these diverse women typify the range and power of Arena Players' production of Eve Merriam's And I Ain't Finished Yet.

An anthology of seven scenes depicting African-American women beginning in the post-Civil War era, And I Ain't Finished Yet is a little like a vaudeville presentation of history. Director Benjamin Prestbury stages it with the actors onstage the entire time, seated in chairs on either side of the stage when they're not in a scene.

It's a low-key approach, but one that allows the characters' stories to literally take center stage. And most of the performers at Arena richly merit that honor. Tachelle Rich is commanding as Ma Rainey (and deserves to sing at least one more song) and Tracie Jiggetts knows how to work the crowd as a feminist preacher.

But the real showstoppers come in the second act, which opens with a searing account of a KKK attack on a black Southern landowner. Hannah Tutson is portrayed giving testimony at a 1971 investigation of the Klan, and Penny S. Demps imbues her with enormous dignity. The handkerchief Demps twists in her hands is emblematic not only of the horrible twists of fate that Tutson suffered, but of the ladylike qualities that never left her, even in the face of the most ignoble treatment.

Tutson's harrowing testimony is followed by Sheila Gaskins' rousing portrayal of comedian Jackie "Moms" Mabley. Sporting a housecoat and tennis shoes, Gaskins doesn't just look the part, she displays a keen sense of comic timing.

As the title suggests, And I Ain't Finished Yet delivers a message of resilience. This theme, together with the show's broad scope, would make it an excellent production to present to school groups.

Showtimes at Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St., are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $15. Call 410-728-6500.

`Always ... Patsy Cline'

A strong woman is also on stage in Winters Lane Productions' Always ... Patsy Cline. The country-western singer who died in a 1963 plane crash at age 30 is splendidly portrayed by Tiffany Walker Porta.

A performer who has just the right twang and teardrop in her voice, Porta sometimes muffles lyrics in her lower register, but that's a minor quibble considering the skill she brings to such Cline classics as "Crazy," "Sweet Dreams" and "Walkin' After Midnight."

Scripted by Ted Swindley, the show has a thin plot that's little more than an excuse for a Patsy Cline concert. The fact-based story concerns a diehard fan named Louise Seger who not only met her idol at a gig in Houston, but persuaded her to spend the night at her home.

Wearing a platinum blond wig the size of Texas, Rebecca Parry overacts - even for a rabid fan. But that, too, only barely detracts from the pleasure of Porta's assured lead performance. This accomplished singer gets worthy accompaniment from a six-piece onstage band under the musical direction of Scott Frutchey. Her four backup singers (Julie A. Bauer, Courtney Colaizzi, Robin Rouse and Gail Shapira) also perform minor acting duties, wordlessly portraying everyone from Louise's boss to her young son.

The production is directed by Daniel L. McDonald, who incorporates a smattering of audience participation (mostly in the form of sing-alongs). But what he and everyone else does best is create the framework in which Porta brings Cline back to life.

"Come On In (sit right down and make yourself at home)," Porta sings. It's excellent advice.

Showtimes for Winters Lane Productions at the Chesapeake Arts Center, 194 Hammonds Lane, Brooklyn Park, are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 23. Tickets are $18. Call 410-636-6597.

Kennedy productions

Two-time Tony Award winner Judith Ivey will co-star with Bill Pullman in the revival of Frank D. Gilroy's Pulitzer Prize-winning domestic drama The Subject Was Roses, coming to Washington's Kennedy Center Jan. 7-29.

Ivey won Tonys for her performances in Hurlyburly and Steaming. Pullman made his Broadway debut in Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? and has more than 40 screen credits, including the movies Independence Day and Sleepless in Seattle and the NBC miniseries Revelations.

Kennedy Center has also announced new dates for the revival of Mame, starring Christine Baranski. The musical will now run May 27-July 2.

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