It is really tough to create a musical that is thoroughly entertaining while addressing challenging socio-political questions, but that’s what Will Power and Justin Ellington have done with Stagger Lee, which is having its world premiere at Dallas Theater Center.
It is directed by Patricia McGregor.
The show uses several myths of African-American folklore — Stagger Lee, Billy and Delilah, Frankie and Johnny, Long Lost John — to comment on the black experience in 20th-century America, and while there is still some tightening and character-clarifying to go, Stagger Lee feels as vital and important as any great American musical that deals with racial themes, such as South Pacific.
Some might say that Stagger Lee doesn’t address race issues as delicately as that show, but honestly, it doesn’t need to. The story of black America is as knotty as it comes, and if we’ve learned anything in the supposedly “post-racial” era after Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election, it’s that black/white divides run very deep. Stagger Lee isn’t shy about anything, and it shouldn’t be.
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Power, a nationally known hip-hop playwright, has been in Dallas for about four years, with residencies at Southern Methodist University and the Dallas Theater Center. Stagger Lee, the product of years of workshopping and grants, has become as a century-spanning work that follows music trends from ragtime to hip-hop.
Early on, we’re introduced to the major characters, all trying to make their way to something better: Billy (Cedric Neal) and Delilah (Tiffany Mann) are all about hard work to take them to the next level on the way to the elusive American dream; as are Frankie (Saycon Sengbloh) and Johnny (Brandon Gill).
From the moment in early-20th-century St. Louis when Stagger Lee (J. Bernard Calloway) gets into the altercation that sets his story as a cautionary tale repeated in blues songs performed by everyone from Ma Rainey to Bob Dylan, he is depicted as a boogeyman of sorts, the character who does his best to hold back the others.
The first act moves from St. Louis to 1920s Harlem to 1950s Chicago, where like Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, the black family moves into a white neighborhood. We don’t see what happens after that move in Raisin, but in Stagger Lee, the reception isn’t welcoming. In the second, we go through the disco phase and hip-hop in Detroit.
John Arnone’s outstanding set design (signs, backdrops), Dede M. Ayite’s spot-on costumes and Camille Brown’s choreography beautifully aid the transitions, setting time and place.
All of the performances in the lead roles, notably Neal and Mann, are complex and brimming with emotion. There was no list of song titles in the program, but there are several tunes, such as one about the hopes of being a Northerner, that are fiery and ready to be put on repeat should a cast recording manifest.
But Stagger Lee is more than just the sum of its parts.
This show says so much about the trajectory of black Americans, and while it is critical of a system that failed — Jim Crow politics, houses torn down to make way for projects, few opportunities leading to lives of crime or homelessness, the idea that more children will guarantee government assistance — it doesn’t necessarily place the blame on one demographic.
Like life, there are no easy answers. Stagger Lee is likely to infuriate some and energize others. The final, powerful image evokes very recent national news, and it should remind everyone that conversation, and action, is more necessary than ever.
That Power has worked in so much of the African-American experience into one complicated narrative, and bound it with hit songs and performances, is nothing short of phenomenal.
▪ Through Feb. 15
▪ AT&T Performing Arts Center, Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora St., Dallas