by John Stoltenberg
Four African American women address the audience as if speaking to a department store clerk. Each is shopping for a dress—a dress, they stress, that must be “special.” As they turn to the faces of four girls projected onscreen upstage, we realize that the horrible 1963 Birmingham church bombing has just occurred, and these women are each seeking in sorrow the garment their daughter will wear to the grave.
Of such heartstopping theatrical moments has the moving new play with music Veils been made. An emotional historical pageant of grief and resilience, Veils pays tribute to women veiled in mourning, with a focus on Black lives lost in bloodshed during the sixties Civil Rights Movement. Longtime Restoration Stage collaborators Steven A. Butler, Jr. (playwright) and Courtney Baker-Oliver (director) along with Justin Thompson (musical director) and an outstanding cast of nine singer-actors have created an exquisitely beautiful experience of enduring sorrow, honor, and healing.
The upbeat preshow music includes “This Little Light of Mine” and “We Shall Overcome,” but the show proper starts in somber silence with a black-and-white montage of images of the fallen—Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, and painfully more. Then lights come up on Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton (Roz White), seated stage right at her dressing table, getting ready for his funeral.
“I can’t do this!” Sybrina says—words that will become a refrain during the play. “Lord, I Need You to Help Me,” she sings—one of several original songs written for the show by Baker-Oliver and Butler, Jr.
Suddenly waves crash and thunder rolls and a storm at sea floods the stage heralding the entrance of Yemaya (Desiré DuBose), the African ocean goddess, wearing a fabulous cerulean blue gown and spiked headdress (Baker-Oliver and Butler, Jr. also did the costumes). “I am the mother of all mothers,” Yemaya says, “healer of the broken heart.” For a goddess, she is very down to earth:
YEMAYA: Do you think you are the only woman to lose her child? Your pain isn’t new. We have been passing the veil from generation to generation since the beginning of time—ever since men decided that they wanted to possess more than just the soil under their feet.
Yemaya then proceeds to reveal to Sybrina (and thereby to us) a succession of other bereaved women. Butler, Jr., and Baker-Oliver use this connective thread of shared sorrow—lightened now and then by humor and sustained throughout by gorgeous vocals—to thematically link the entire show.
Among the highlights of Veils is a scene encapsulating women’s prominent role in sit-ins, bus boycotts, voter-registration drives, and other sixties Civil Rights protests. The Ensemble sings “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” the first of several deeply affecting tableaus.
Fannie Lou Hamer (Andrea Gerald), whose son James Chaney was murdered by the Klan during a Freedom Ride in Mississippi, tells of being arrested and jailed and beaten with a blackjack by two African American inmates (“my own people!”) on orders from white troopers.
“Keep your eyes on the prize,” the Ensemble sings. “Hold on, hold on.”
Upstage a projected photo shows the sign marking the river site where Emmet Till’s corpse was found—and there is a racist’s bullet hole in the sign. Standing in front of it, Emmet’s mother, Mamie Till (Corisa Myers), tells of tearing open his pine casket with her bare hands to bring his body back to Chicago to show the world what was done to him.
Myrlie Evers (Roz White), widow of slain Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers, says of the outpouring of protest that followed his death: “They took away my Medgar and gave me a movement.”
Wearing a glittering gold skin-tight costume, the American-born French entertainer and civil-rights activist Josephine Baker (Suli Myrie, in what is nearly a comic turn) makes a speaking appearance at the March on Washington and says alongside Dr. King:
JOSEPHINE BAKER: I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world
Folksinger Joan Baez (Jenna Murphy, playing a ukelele) sings “Birmingham Sunday” as a haunting accompaniment to the dress-shopping scene:
Come ’round by my side and I’ll sing you a song
I’ll sing it so softly it’ll do no one wrong
On Birmingham Sunday the blood ran like wine
And the choir kept singing of freedom
More silent documentary images of grief fill the screen, including footage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Jacqueline Kennedy (Jenna Murphy), wearing bloodied gloves and slip and echoing “I can’t do this!,” asks imploringly: “Tell me what to do, Jack!”
Butler, Jr. has gathered several stories in Veils that may be unfamiliar but once told become indelible. For instance: There was a white housewife named Viola Liuzzo (Jenna Murphy), who was a fervent Civil Rights activist and joined the Selma to Montgomery marches. She was murdered by the Klan to make an example of what would happen to any other white woman with similar ideas.
And Veils excerpts the Black Journal television interview between Tony Brown (Jeremy Keith Hunter) and Angela Davis (Suli Myrie) in which Davis delivers a line that got the biggest audience reaction on opening night: “You can’t make more powerful white men without submissive white women.”
Other Black women in mourning include Lorena Ware (Suli Myrie), whose boy Virgil Lamar Ware was gunned down at the same time as the Birmingham church bombing—so his story got no attention.
Constant sorrow is the dramatic episodic structure of Veils. It’s what holds the work in its arms. It’s what holds the work in the audience’s heart. Which should come as no surprise, because constant sorrow is what life itself is like for countless women. The surprise is that with Veils two such multitalented African American young men have undertaken this profoundly womanist theme with such deep empathy and authentic respect. This, to my knowledge, is a first in theater history.
Veils’ last performance is Sunday, November 10, 2019. See it while you can.
Running Time: Two hours 10 minutes, including one intermission.
Roz White as Sybrina Fulton/Myrlie Evers
Desiré DuBose as Yemaya
Jeremy Keith Hunter as Tracy Martin/Medgar Evers/Tony Brown
Corisa Myers as Ensemble/Soloist/Mamie Till
Andrea Gerald as Ensemble/Fannie Lou Hamer/Alberta King
Brandyn Ashley as Ensemble/Soldier’s Mom
Kandace Foreman as Ensemble/Fannie Lee Chaney/ Betty Shabazz
Jenna Murphy as Bull Conner/Joan Baez/Jacqueline Kennedy/Rita Schwerner/Viola Liuzzo
Suli Myrie as Ensemble/Josephine Baker/Lorena Ware
Executive Producer: Sandra Evers-Manly
Producers: Courtney Baker-Oliver and Steven A. Butler, Jr.
Associate Producer: Kimberly C. Gaines
Restoration Stage Chief Executive Officer: Dr. Will Cobbs, Jr.
Production Stage Manager: Ronald Lee Newman
Set Designer: Courtney Baker-Oliver
Costumes and Properties: Courtney Baker-Oliver and Steven A. Butler, Jr.
Lighting Design: Jerry Dale, Jr.
Sound and Video Designer: David Lamont Wilson
Sound Engineers: Michael Willis and Aaron Gerald
Graphic Design and Photography: Kimberly C. Gaines
Master Carpenter: Robert Hamilton
Pre-recorded Sound Engineer: Justin Thompson
Production Assistants: Kal Jackson, Mandrill Solomon, Adonis Guiellmo
“Lord, I Need You To Help Me” (Sybrina)
“Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” (The Women)
“Eyes On the Prize” (The Women)
“Mississippi Goddamn” (Fannie Lou Hamer)
“They Laid Medgar Evers In His Grave” (Corisa Myers)
“Birmingham Sunday” (Joan Baez)
“Come Sunday” (Yemaya)
“Yellowbird” (The Women)
“Colorblind Angel” (Corisa Myers)
“Eyes on the Prize Reprise” (The Women)
“Dedicated” (The Women)