The good ideas that birthed ShaWanna Renee Rivon’s, You Are Cordially Invited to Sit In
, now playing at Stages, are plentiful.
A commissioned show (hooray for original work), filled with joy (a light touch post-pandemic is what most people are craving), about the sit-in protests that led to the desegregation of Houston (an important story we haven't seen before), and make it a jukebox musical (because Stages audiences like these type of shows).
The issue is, good ideas as each of these may be, put them all together (directed by Aaron Brown) and they add up to a tonally dissonant wisp of a show with little more insight than the quick study historical timeline printed in the program.
The year is 1960, and Houston's Black and white populations live together but separately. Each keeping to their side of the tracks, so to speak. Texas Southern University students, Mae Florence (Sarah Sachi), Charline (Rayevin Johnson), Leo (Jordan U. Okeke), and Elijah (Kaleb Womack) gather together at the El Dorado Ballroom, a showcase for the great black entertainers of the era.
Mae is there to work and to try and convince club owner Hannah (Stephanie D. Jones) to take a chance on her burgeoning singing career. Leo is there out of unprofessed love for Mae. Charline comes by to prod Mae into practicing their sorority pledge paces.
It's all young ambition, love, and fun (peppered by snippets of distractingly drum-heavy musical numbers like "Heat Wave" and "Mr. Big Stuff") until Elijah bursts into the club after a run-in with the police.
Rightfully, the show takes a darker turn, but rather than let the angrily humiliated Elijah speak or sing his feelings about the encounter, he instead bursts into a few bars of "Fight the Power," in classic jukebox fashion. It’s a number we’ll hear repeated several times during the show (there’s that aggressively forward drumming again) and while we can all agree the song (made famous by the Isley Brothers) has much to say and a solid groove, it loses its punch when wedged limply into the narrative in this fashion.
Unlike jukebox musicals that tell the story of a musical act (Jersey Boys, Beautiful, Tina: The Tina Turner Musical)
, Sit In
isn’t relying on the songbook of an artist to tell a biographical story. Nor is it using songs to tell a raucous and ultimately silly/fun story (Rock of Ages, Mamma Mia!
Joyous and at times funny as this show may be, ultimately, Sit In
is about segregation and the fight to end it. As such, characters experience deeply raw situations and emotions that can’t be adequately or specifically expressed by the era’s hit protest/chart songs.
This discord between character and song is a consistent problem throughout the show even when dealing with the less serious moments. "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" serves as ointment for a potential romantic breakup and as a way to calm a bossy sorority sister. The laughs from both are appreciated even though we all know the song doesn't quite fit either scenario or reveal anything substantive about the story or characters.
But, moving on to the sit-in.
Elijah's run-in with the police leads him to talk about the one-month-old Greensboro, North Carolina peaceful civil rights protest where young Black college students staged a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter. He suggests the foursome take up similar action.
It’s here that Rivon’s play has some meat to chew on. It's also the longest stretch of the show not interrupted by half songs trying to pass as narrative stepping stones.
While Elijah's fired up to join the already mounting sit-in protests happening in Houston, his friends aren't so sure. Leo talks about liking that each race keeps to themselves, unlike what he experienced in New Orleans where white people would encroach on Black neighborhoods looking to make trouble. Charlene thinks using the law and appealing to Congress is the way to affect change. Mae worries about violence and getting arrested.
Stephanie Jones in You Are Cordially Invited to Sit In
Photo by Melissa Taylor
Then there's skeptical and concerned Hannah telling the kids that minding their business/building up their own communities rather than demanding equality, is the best course of action. Never mind that their parents would kill them if they found out they were considering joining a protest.
No community is a monolith and Rivon astutely portrays the differences and worries that these characters feel when it comes to taking action in this manner.
Unfortunately, what transpires from there never captures the same emotional heft, even though the scenes themselves deal with difficult issues. We learn of further protests and ensuing violence. The foursome finally decides to participate in the sit-in where they experience just how scary and difficult change can be.
But at this point, Rivon is done with any deep dive into complex emotions, instead choosing to let a smattering of ballad-like songs do the narrative work.
Frustrated with love, segregation, and ill-treatment by white club owners during a signing audition, Mae has the second act's highlight number, "Bitter Earth". Yes, once again, the song doesn't quite capture the character or situation, but wow can Sachi sing the hell out of it.
In fact, she sings the roof off every number she's in. It's a performance that's heads and shoulders above her castmates who at times seem lost beneath the music, unable to bring these era-defining songs to life.
Director Aaron Brown gives us a tightly elegant sit-in scene but seems unsure how to marry the rest of the show with the musical numbers, resulting in many clunky and anti-climactic moments.
This includes the final scenes which putter out with a whisper. We learn of the desegregation of Houston third hand, removing us even further from the characters we've just spent two-plus hours with. It's a classic tell, not show move, and as in most cases, it feels like a letdown.
Rivon has a great and necessary story to tell. She’s done her research and is primed to make this piece of Houston history a must-see show. And sure, make it a musical, why not? You want it uplifting? No problem! It’s a truly inspiring story.
Maybe drop the jukebox idea and get someone to write original songs/lyrics for the show. Or find a way to better weave these songs into the narrative and give us a more fulfilling experience.
Ideas are like accessories, it's easy to put too many on and ruin the look. Let the show wear the outfit, not the other way around.
You Are Cordially Invited to Sit In continues through May 22 at Stages, 800 Rosine. For more information, visit stageshouston.com or call 713-527-0123. $17 – $79.