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(pray)

nicHi douglas’ “sacred offering” is a joyous and transcendent excursion into the celebration of a Sunday Baptist Church service seen through women’s eyes.

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Amara Granderson and the company of nicHi douglas’ (pray) at Greenwich House (Photo credit: Ben Arons)

Tony Marinelli

Tony Marinelli, Critic

The celebration of nicHi douglas’ (pray) is already under way as the audience enters the theater. We, the congregation, are asked to don hospital booties (yes, just like we did for Covid) so as to protect the new carpet of the church. As we lean on walls near the entrance hunched over to make sure the booties completely cover our shoes before we make our way to our pews, the women attending this service have already begun “clearing the room’s energy of negativity” and preparing themselves for the ritual of performance. They are the actors, as well as fellow members of the congregation.

They are all named Sister Anna Bertha, as they are all variations on a theme of devout and very spiritual women, all dressed in powder blue Sunday-best attire, and all lifting their voices in song They alternate solos as in a Devotion before a traditional Black Baptist service. Here the song is S. R. Chambers’ “Tussle,” about having a tussle with the Devil, and winning. If you have that feeling like you just walked into the middle of a movie, be grateful it is something as uplifting as (pray).

Ziiomi Louise Law, Aigner Mizzelle, Satori Folkes-Stone, Ariel Kayla Blackwood and the company of nicHi douglas’ (pray) (Photo credit: Ben Arons)

In addition to the eight accomplished women portraying Sister Anna Bertha, there is a non-speaking role of The Ancestor, who in addition to providing interpretive dance, runs out of her looming Wenge forest to snatch missives out of readers’ hands once the content has been shared with us, the congregation. There is also FREE, a character who makes her presence known immediately with, “I didn’t get a hat.” The lack of a hat, the marked difference in attire, and the constant questioning and self-reproach make her very much the outlier in this group. There is also A Singer and A Man to Play Piano that provide the context that we come to expect from a traditional service.

A program for the service is provided. After a “Welcome Speech” where we are all greeted by Sisters Anna Bertha, there is singing. Pay close attention as the lyrics are not what we are accustomed to. “This little light of mine” is now “This little shine o’ might I’m gonna let it light.” Ironically, there is no mention of the word “God” and the word “Amen” is throughout replaced by the word “Again.” The “Late Seating” section is accompanied by a lot of reprimanding and finger wagging from the Sister(s), so one will never be late for church again. “Bear Witness to a Neighbor” encourages us to go as far as the other side of the theater, er, church, as a good-natured sharing of the experience and the good wishes for all. Unlike in the Catholic church where one shakes the hand of a neighbor and utters, “Peace be with you,” in this setting full-on hugs are welcomed. Two sequences of “Burn Something” are meant to be smoke-based cleansing, at the hands of the ancestor hidden amongst the trees of her Wenge forest. The smell of burning sage is a familiar and soothing solace.

S T A R R Busby and Darnell White in a scene from nicHi douglas’ (pray) (Photo credit: Ben Arons)

Interspersed throughout are the inspiring and elevating songs as performed by the incredible S T A R R Busby, written by Busby and JJJJJerome Ellis. Busby led the sensational Elizabeth Swados musical The Beautiful Lady earlier this season at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, so she is very comfortable carrying a show vocally. I (pray) she, as the minister promoting the church’s singles night, also gets the laughs. “Do not show up to this event if your partner don’t know you’re ‘single.’ ” It’s not your usual homily or commercial for this week’s church potluck.

If we are nothing like the church ladies, and we are nothing like the Singer, are we like FREE, the character that experiences the greatest change? Amara Granderson is haunting as the woman who doesn’t get a hat. Her performance is imbued with anguish in not getting answers to her questions. She is the lost soul who comes to the church to find what Sisters Anna Bertha have already found, but “Where am I?…I hadn’t realized I should bring anything…My hallowed hope is to understand…Oh we’re supposed to whisper…But where do I get a candle?” are her meek interjections as the Sisters Anna Bertha commune with their faith. FREE’s commentary as a witness is summed up in “Is it really a holy place if you can show up late to it tho????????”

D. Woods and the company of nicHi douglas’ (pray)(Photo credit: Ben Arons)

As this is very much an ensemble piece, it shouldn’t be easy to single out a performance amongst the Sisters Anna Bertha, but…we are in the presence of a legend in Tina Fabrique as one of the older women in this congregation. What begins as a low smolder becomes a piercing wail in the poignant “For to Ease My Troubled Mind.” In what amounts to a most passionate epiphany for the character of FREE, Miss Fabrique makes Busby’s beautiful music soar.

nicHi douglas’ vision is one of evocative beauty, one that gives us stage pictures to treasure for some time. The seated women fanning themselves with beautiful white fans as they watch one of their own reading a passage or singing is a natural touch. Even the graphic for the show gives us pause – the word “pray” surrounded by two hands creating the parentheses denotes how personal the power of an individual’s prayer is. douglas’ church is almost utopian in its design in that it welcomes all with no judgment…even the “mixed company” of whites present at the service who might be startled by how genuinely euphoric the service is. Her choreography, like her direction, is empowered by a true spirit of celebration, reminiscent of the great Alvin Ailey masterwork, Revelations.

Aigner Mizzelle in a scene from nicHi douglas’ (pray) (Photo credit: Ben Arons)

(pray) is supported by the generosity of brilliant designers. The immersive church setting is the genius work of dots, a multi-disciplinary design collective (Santiago Orjuela-Laverde, Andrew Moerdyk, and Kimie Nishikawa) entrusted with creating this spiritual house of joy, complete with faux stained-glass windows, comfortable rows of pews, an altar with longer pews, and a Wenge forest almost engulfing the area where the pianist sits. DeShon Elem’s gorgeous costumes enhance the spiritual settings, first in Sunday-best and later the white undergarments. Cha See’s lighting design and Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design are simpatico with the vast solemnity of the experience as well as the sheer bursts of energy and music, as in how the forest is used. It is lit to deepen the textures of the foliage and the density of the tree trunks, as the living space of the Ancestor. Particular attention is paid to the sounds of water and branches moving so we are conscious of the Ancestor, though we don’t see her at those moments. The sound of helicopters and the requisite shadows as they hang over the skylight of the church are sound and light reminders of the question of safety of these devout women.

The final tableau gives us pause. After all the Sisters Anna Bertha, the singer and the man to play piano have filed out of the church, after having formed a protective circle around the Ancestor, one solitary Sister stays behind to clear some of the chalk that was drawn near the altar by the Ancestor. As the singing fades away, she heads into the forest, perhaps to be the next representative Ancestor. FREE, now alone, has watched the Sister’s actions. “Oh we can go in there too? Why wouldn’t somebody just say that? The whole time I’m trying to convince myself that there’s not a forest right here.” And maybe you only see the forest if you are meant to see the forest.

(pray) (through October 28, 2023)

Ars Nova & National Black Theatre

Greenwich House, 27 Barrow Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.arsnovanyc.com/pray/

Running time: 75 minutes without an intermission

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Tony Marinelli
About Tony Marinelli (50 Articles)
Tony Marinelli is an actor, playwright, director, arts administrator, and now critic. He received his B.A. and almost finished an MFA from Brooklyn College in the golden era when Benito Ortolani, Howard Becknell, Rebecca Cunningham, Gordon Rogoff, Marge Linney, Bill Prosser, Sam Leiter, Elinor Renfield, and Glenn Loney numbered amongst his esteemed professors. His plays I find myself here, Be That Guy (A Cat and Two Men), and …and then I meowed have been produced by Ryan Repertory Company, one of Brooklyn’s few resident theatre companies.
Contact: Website

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