Archive for February, 2016

Mavis Staples: Enduring Spirit

February 27, 2016

By Robert Israel


As a teenager without car or driver’s license who grew up in the late 1960s, I traveled to Newport, Rhode Island’s summer music festivals via ferryboat from Providence’s India Point. Newport was the nexus for folk singers and gospel groups. Unlike today where security barriers keep audiences at a distance from performers, Festival Field during this era was the opposite: audiences mingled with the artists at informal “hoots” and workshops or invited to clamber onstage to sing along. You’d see the likes of Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Theo Bikel, and many others, singing together or alone, swapping songs, performing duets, all while rapt audience members sat clustered at their feet.

On Sunday mornings, gospel music groups – many of them had traveled by bus to Newport from the Deep South – performed on the lawn. They sang without microphones: they never seemed to need them. If they were weary from their road trips, they never showed it: their rhapsodic voices, as if drenched in butterscotch and sorghum syrup, rose up above the sun-splashed field and became pure light.

It was on a Sunday morning in 1967 — my blanket spread out alongside a wooden performance platform – that I heard, for the first time, the glorious harmonies of the Dixie Hummingbirds from South Carolina. One of the groups that followed the Hummingbirds — with Mississippi roots (by way of Chicago) — was the Staple Singers.

The Staples family — “Pops” Staples and daughters Pervis, Mavis and Cleotha — had already gained notoriety singing at civil rights rallies with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “preaching” the gospel about the evils of segregation and rousing listeners through exhilarating song to unite in solidarity for the purpose of creating a more just, more inclusive society. They had a commanding presence. When they sang, it was a personal invitation to foreswear the toils of daily life and to claim a righteous place in the Kingdom on High.

Flash forward:


Now 76 years old, Mavis Staples shows no signs of slowing down as she reaches out to new audiences. She alone carries on her family’s musical tradition, after the deaths of her father “Pops” and her sister, Cleotha. (Pervis Staples retired years before). In 2015 and throughout 2016, she’s booked for weekly shows at venues around the country. Late last year, I saw her perform in Boston at a Celebrity Series concert before a capacity crowd at Berklee Performance Center; her voice and stage presence continue to exude power, to plumb emotional and spiritual depths.

A couple of weeks ago, she joined fellow septuagenarian Joan Baez on stage at the Beacon Theatre in New York City for Joan’s 75th birthday, singing alongside Paul Simon, Judy Collins, Jackson Browne, and others.

Her touring schedule would exhaust younger performing artists. These upcoming appearances include performing in New Orleans at the Jazz and Heritage Festival in May and at Bonaroo in Tennessee in June.

A new HBO documentary about her life, Mavis!, will screen on February 29. A sneak preview is now available on her website.

An EP, entitled “Your Good Forture,” release by the Anti- label two months ago showed, that her songs have not lost their relevance. As fellow-performing artist Joan Osborne, who joined her onstage in Boston at the Berklee, put it, “Mavis transports you to the very foundation of your soul.”

For those not familiar with Mavis and the Staples Singers, a good place to start is with the Staples’ cameo appearance in the movie The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese’s film about rock group The Band’s last concert). Mavis stands out by being the most demonstrative and outspoken. In an interview some years back about the making of that film, she explained why she became so animated, appearing on the screen clapping her hands and intoning a deep emotional response to the song she was singing:

I have a tendency, which I think is good, to just sing from my heart. I want to feel it myself. Pops taught me that, to sing from my heart. I can’t just sing from the top of my head. I gotta get into the song. I see it like a movie, in my head… I don’t want to be gloatin’, you know, but anytime I watch it, it’s refreshing. It’s like the first time. You never get tired of it, you know. And I remember everything about it. I remember every moment that we had doing that. Pops said, ‘Mavis! Baby, you shouldn’t carry it out so long like that,’ when I go, ‘Heeeyyyy yeeeeaaah.’ And I said, ‘Nah, daddy, that’s the good part. That’s what I feel.’ He said, ‘O.K., do what you feel. That’s the best thing. Do what you feel.’

Mavis Staples is on a mission; she wants to serve as an antidote to despair and hatred, to set off “positive vibrations.” In these times of murderous strife and political demagoguery, each day generating new proclamations of vulgarity and racism, Mavis’ takes up the challenging task of providing healing. Like the songs she and her family sang long ago in Newport, they are about bringing flickers illumination into what seems to be a darkening world.


This piece appeared originally in The Arts Fuse (Boston).


Review: “Milk Like Sugar”

February 8, 2016

Ramona Lisa Alexander and Jasmine Carmichael in Milk Like Sugar. Milk Like Sugar plays from January 29 – February 27, South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

By Robert Israel

Kirsten Greenidge, a young Boston-area playwright, happened on a news item about a group of teenage girls in Gloucester, MA who made a pregnancy pact: each would get in a family way at the same time, a path they felt represented the best of the limited choices available to them. That news item became the impetus to write Milk Like Sugar, a long one-act that captures the pathos of young clustered and isolated female lives, the maelstrom of internal and external conflicts they face, and the repercussions of their decisions in a fractured, oft-indifferent, world.

The script succeeds despite some gaping flaws. While the drama strongly articulates the young women’s many conflicts in language that captures today’s hypertext(ed) reality – complete with vulgarities, abbreviations and exasperations – the evening comes off as more of a series of well-etched scenes — this is not a cohesively structured play with seamless transitions tied together by an overarching motif. Milk Like Sugar is collection of sharp photographs rather than an in-depth portrait.

There is an attempt to make the Sanders-esque haves-versus-the-have-nots disparity a central motif: the “milk” in the title refers to the powdered substance — said to be found in lower-income homes — that resembles “sugar.” But the class warfare metaphor is stretched way too thin. We need to be given more on what income inequality does to the young women’s psyches, how the desperation of poverty forces them into their dilemma. Yes, they express envy they cannot afford fancy clothes and cell phone covers. Yes, a male character Malik (Marc Pierre) ruminates with envy about the rich folks flying overhead in airplanes; he imagines the well-to-do are mocking him and other poor folk struggling to scrape a living back down on earth. But is that enough? Evidently not, because right before the final curtain Greenidge has her lead character Annie (Jasmine Carmichael) explain the economic theme to us (in case we missed an earlier reference to eating “government cheese”), explicating the title word by word. It’s awkward and contrived. We should have gotten the point earlier in the play — the wrap-up is a sign of insecurity or condescension.

The cast performs admirably, with spirit and sass and lots of captivating body movements (wild banshee-like dancing to hip-hop music). As Annie, Carmichael is the essence of girlishness trapped in an adult body, craving access to a world of maturity that she has only glimpsed. Her smiles are endearingly sweet, and there is a charming clumsiness to her wanton pursuit of a sexuality she feels but has yet to consummate. Her friend Talisha (Shazi Raja) is a perfect foil: brash, sexualized in tight shorts, sexperienced, she prances about with teased hair and garish makeup, using her prowess to captivate her prey. Rounding out the pack is Margie (Carolina Sanchez), who is given some of the play’s most humorous lines, and Keera (Shanae Burch), a church-going girl who is not really a member of the troika but yearns to be part of the group.

The play cries out for dialogue and confrontations that direct us deeper into the conflicts the young women face and how they perceive them. We follow a riff about cell phone covers and, suddenly, the subject of pregnancies is mentioned; we hear Annie ache for “ladybug” covers for the aforementioned cell phone, and then are surprised to hear her express a longing for “little tiny babies” (with “matching” baby bottles that each of her friends will feed their offspring with). Perhaps this stream-of-consciousness is meant to underscore the helter-skelter flow of their minds, the blurring of distinctions, a confusion between realities and fantasies. Maybe their lives are a mishmash and crucial lines are blurred. But the audience needs to be guided through the thickets into the moments of illumination. Slowing down the quicksilver pitter-patter might help here.

Greenidge, in published interviews, has expressed admiration for the late playwright August Wilson, whose works about the African-American experience she first saw performed in Boston as a youngster. There is evidence of homage in Milk Like Sugar, particularly to Wilson’s drama Fences, whose lead character, Troy Maxson, tells his son Cory that he doesn’t have to love him, that loving him is not in his job description as a father. In Milk Like Sugar, Annie talks with her mother Myrna (Ramona Lisa Alexander) and expresses a need for love and affection, only to hear Myrna (who had Annie when she was in junior high school) tell her she’s really not so special after all. The stark pathos of this scene does Wilson proud.

Director M. Bevin O’Gara keeps the play moving along effectively. The scenes among the three young women work well when we can actually hear the rhythm of their language, which sometimes is lost or drowned out by piped-in bursts of loud, discordant music. (If sound designer M.L. Dogg turned down the volume it would help matters mightily.) The set, a chain-link fence along the back wall, designed by Cristina Todesco, effectively accentuates the isolation of the young women’s world.

There is much to admire in Milk Like Sugar. The script provides plenty of evidence that this talented playwright is continuing to evolve. As Greenidge’s voice and talent matures, as she absorbs more storytelling techniques, she will no doubt move on to explore a fuller dramatic palette. These vivid snapshots will be left behind for the creation of larger, more revelatory canvases.


This review appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston).