Review: Why We Tell the Story: A Celebration of Black Musical Theatre, Stratford, Ont.

by Lynn on July 15, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Performed live and in person under the canopy at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ont.

Curated and directed by Marcus Nance

Music Director, Franklin Brasz

Lighting by Kaileigh Krysztofiak

Sound by Peter McBoyle

The Singers: Neema Bickersteth

Robert Markus

Marcus Nance

Vanessa Sears

The Band: Franklin Brasz (conductor/keyboard)

Kevin Ramessar (acoustic guitar, electric guitar)

Jon Maharaj (acoustic bass, electric bass)

Dale-Anne Brendon (drum kit)

Why We Tell The Story: A Celebration of Musical Theatre is the first of five different cabarets that will celebrate music, song, lyrics and resilience that are performed outdoors under the canopy at the Festival theatre. I love that this show, the first of the 2021 rebounding Stratford Festival, officially opened on Tuesday, July 13, 68 years to the day that the Stratford Festival opened in 1953 under a tent. Love that symmetry.

Why We Tell The Story: A Celebration of Black Musical Theatre is curated and directed by Marcus Nance. In his gracious, open-hearted program note Marcus Nance writes: “The songs and poems you are about to hear, written by Black artists and allies, all speak to the Black experience. Black stories, Black history, the experiences of my parents, those of my ancestors and most importantly my own personal experiences have always been part of my creative instinct. Now that I have the opportunity to tell this chapter, I couldn’t think of doing it without including others….I hold great admiration for the extraordinary Black artists and allies with whom I share the telling of these stories, on this stage.”

Marcus Nance shares the stage with these gifted artists: Neema Bickersteth, Robert Markus and Vanessa Sears.

The show is composed of poems from Black poets such as Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, and songs from various Broadway musicals that would have been sung by black artists and allies. I appreciate the inclusive embrace of Marcus Nance regarding ‘allies’, white composers, lyricists and performers in tune with and sensitive to the Black experience. I am grateful to Marcus Nance for his generosity and sense of inclusion of all voices in this endeavor. Poets Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou are Black and write about that experience in such poems in the show as: “I, Too,” “Democracy,” “The Negro Mother, “I Dream A World,” “As I Grew Older” all by Langston Hughes; “Human Family” and “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou.  Many of the composers and lyricists of the musicals selected were Black telling their stories: Fats Waller, Andy Razaf and Harry Brooks, who wrote “Black and Blue” which is part of the score of Ain’t Misbehavin, Lebohang “Lebo M” Morake, one of the creators of the glorious song “They Live in You” from The Lion King, Charlie Smalls who wrote “Home” from The Wiz, Brenda Russell and Stephen Bray who are part of the composers/lyricists who wrote the stirring ‘anthem’, “I’m Here” from The Colour Purple.

Nance also includes the work of white composer/lyricists who illuminate the black experience in their work: Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Once on this Island), George and Ira Gershwin (Porgy and Bess), Cy Coleman (The Life), Roger Miller (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), Georges Bizet and Oscar Hammerstein II (Carmen Jones), David Bryan and Joe DiPietro (Memphis) Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II (Show Boat) for example. In our changing world, do we listen differently to these songs because of who composed them? Do we embrace the story? Marcus Nance got me thinking about all of it.   

The whole enterprise was a terrific adventure. Marcus Nance opened the cabaret with a stirring reading of Langston Hughes poem “I, Too.” It’s a poem of hope, inspiration, and delicate, but firm instruction, to those with blinkered vision. This is one of the stanzas:


I’ll be at the table

When company comes,

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”



They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.”

While the theme of the evening is the idea of “home” and the power of love and the human heart, Nance reading the poem in his resonant baritone voice set the tone—one of pride, patience, perception and resilience. The cabaret is divided into telling sections: Life, Pain, Family, Faith, Love, Hope and You. That last, You, includes the audience in the journey of telling the story. Each one of the 27 songs in the Cabaret forwards the various themes. Each singer gets to shine in his/her own way.

Neema Bickersteth sings a glorious rendition of “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. Vanessa Sears is world weary and hilarious singing “the Oldest Profession, from The Life. Robert Markus sings an impassioned version of “Change Don’t Come Easy, from Memphis about changing intolerant ways of thinking. Marcus Nance shows his comedic chops when he sings “Big Black Man” from The Full Monty when the only Black character in the show perceptively tells of his powers with women, and he does it with ease. When the quartet melds in such songs as “They Live In You” from The Lion King or “Wheels of a Dream” from Ragtime or “Why We Tell The Story” from Once on this Island their voices blend seamlessly, the result is soul-stirring.

As I said, it was a terrific adventure because ‘Mother Nature’ got involved. Neema Bickersteth was singing “Dat’s Love” from Carmen Jones—a modern version of Bizet’s opera, Carmen. I saw in the distance, a dark ‘wall’ quickly rolling towards the canopy. And then the rain clouds opened and sent a torrent of rain pelting down on the canopy so forceful and violent it sounded like the end of the world. The pelting reminded me of the ‘old’ Tom Patterson Theatre with its uninsulated roof and the banging of the rain.

That torrent on the canopy canvas could not overpower Neema Bickersteth’s singing. She stared down ‘Mother Nature’ and smiled and kept on singing, the sound rising up to meet the rain. Fearless. Nobody moved while they listened to her intently. A glorious adventure.

Why We Tell The Story: A Celebration of Black Musical Theatre plays at the Stratford Festival, under a canopy at the Festival Theater until July 21.

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1 Kent James July 24, 2021 at 12:32 am

It’s a beauty – can’t wait to see it again when it streams, and let’s hope we’ll get to see it live in Toronto sometime soon!