With the eeriest juxtaposition of menacing lyrics and playful, bouncy piano, a scene is set: It’s Alabama in the year 1955, one of the most dangerous periods in history for Southern black folk.
As paired-off dancers step and twirl before him, a brown-skinned young man portraying a Caucasian bigot sings his warning, “If you don’t wanna die, boy, don’t look me in the eye. …”
These first few minutes of Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round, Buku Productions’ new “Martin Luther King Gospel Musical,” are its most theatrically engaging. All of the arrogance of racism and its reluctant acceptance by its past victims are simultaneously depicted in this song-and-dance routine. The tenor in which the production continues, however, is a steady departure from emphasis on the blood-and-guts struggle for equality that changed everything. Instead, Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round becomes a celebration of the religious and spiritual aspects of the modern-day civil rights movement.
While it can be argued that the movement took root in black churches, where such ministers as a young Martin Luther King Jr. helped rally congregations to action in the streets, misperceptions endure. From the time of then-Montgomery, Ala., resident Rosa Parks’ refusal to leave her seat on a segregated bus, which helped to spark the civil rights plan of attack, there were legal, public relations, financial and political resources in place for support. The church could never have accomplished all the goals of the movement on its own.
Although its billing as a gospel play implies the subject matter featured in Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round, the play puts religion so far to the forefront of the story that it’s difficult to discern any of the other weapons that were used in this historic battle. When the Martin Luther King character (portrayed by the musical’s writer, director and Buku Productions founder Reuben Yabuku) first appears on stage, he is literally preaching to the choir. After a stirring and dynamic performance of the inspiring “Birth of a Movement, I Can’t Fight Alone (Who Will Lead Us),” an action scene seems inevitable, but instead, the red-robed singers simply turn to listen and say “amen” as King speaks.
With not a single line of story dialogue, Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round is told almost entirely through song, with the exception of quotations from King speeches and statements. No doubt, the vocalists do a magnificent job of helping to carry the production. They are some of the most outstanding live gospel singers metro Detroit has to offer. In fact, witnessing the talents of singers Anita Newby, Thomas Nance and Armond, combined with Yabuku’s original compositions, calls to mind the idea for a sound track based on the play. Script and direction are areas of the production, however, that could use attention.
For example, there are historical inaccuracies in Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round’s depiction of the Montgomery bus boycott that followed Parks’ arrest. On a couple of occasions, Alabama’s capital city of Birmingham is confusingly referenced, such as when King cites the “Birmingham Improvement Association.” It was the Montgomery Improvement Association that became instrumental in the successful bus boycott. Birmingham is approximately 300 miles away from Montgomery, and the capital would later become known for a more deadly and tragic episode than bus segregation — the racist 1963 church bombing that killed four black girls.
There’s also misplaced symbolism, as a short scene in the play finds one of its actors strutting militantly onto the stage in a beret, reminiscent of the Black Panthers. The Panthers were not formed until a decade after the boycott, largely as a reaction to what Panther founders and organizers viewed as the failings of the civil rights movement.
Visually, Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round is appealing, particularly because of the energy and skill of its dance troupe. Apart from blocking or sight line problems, when parts of their bodies disappear behind the stage curtain as they perform, the dancers’ collective presentation is flawless. Choreographer Paulette Brockington and music director James P. Shelton appear to work in perfect synchronicity.
As King, Yabuku should speak more slowly, but ultimately Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round relies more heavily on emotionalism than actual drama. This approach is probably the reason it feels, at times, less like a depiction of a history-making struggle than a church play.
See Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round at the Northwest Activities Center (18100 Meyers, Detroit), Fridays & Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Runs through Feb. 8.Eddie B. Allen Jr. is a Detroit-based freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]