'Crossin' Over' speaks clearly without a spoken word

Photo by Phillp Hamer

With the current revival of its original 2007 show “Crossin’ Over,” the Black Rep does more than introduce a new audience to one of its best productions.

It allows theatergoers who have seen “Crossin’ Over” before to reconsider what made it so good in the first place.

The strengths — a fine ensemble, a wide-ranging music selection — are still there, of course. But a second or third look helps theatergoers see something really remarkable in the structure of the show, created by Black Rep founder Ron Himes and music director Charles Creath.

 

Entirely through music and gesture, without any dialogue, “Crossin’ Over” manages to convey a big story with absolute clarity. Tracing the history of African-Americans from the other side of the Atlantic to contemporary urban churches, “Crossin’ Over” is simultaneously touching and lucid.

Not to mention entertaining. Obviously, it can’t take too deep a look into any of specific issues that it deals with, but it’s comprehensive and, in the end, pretty optimistic. If you have any interest in American cultural history, you don’t want to miss this show.

And while you’re at it, bring the kids. They’ll enjoy it, too, and the whole family will have plenty to talk about afterward.

From the opening scene, when a percussionist trio takes us to West Africa, it’s easy to fall under the spell of the show. Life in Africa seems appealing, with crops to plant, religious rituals involving a dancing totem, even a little flirtation.

But when the performers let us see disaster strike as they are captured and imprisoned on a slave ship, we appreciate their confusion and fear. The simple set, designed by Jim Burwinkle, has a couple of levels, allowing director Himes to jam the cast into a crowded hold below the deck (the upper level of the stage). Then they are separated by gender.

In both places, Himes alludes to the prisoners’ terrible suffering through the Middle Passage. A man is whipped, the women are raped. But we never see any assailants. The actors, writhing spasmodically, tell us what happens all by themselves, without a spoken word. It’s storytelling by allusion, never explicit but all too clear.

This cast includes veterans of earlier productions, plus newcomers. J. Samuel Davis, one of the most charismatic actors in town, and Herman L. Gordon, with his imposing voice, become protectors in every situation. Davis leads the terrific “99 and a Half,” an amazingly cheery injunction to keep striving, while Gordon’s delivery of “Go Down, Moses,” sounds like an actual biblical command.

Two other men, Micheal Lowe and Kelvin Roston, Jr., embody youthful courage as “Crossin’ Over” moves into stories of the auction block, the cotton fields, midnight escapes, the Great Migration, the Civil Rights movement and, finally, to today’s African-American churches.

Lowe is a fine tap dancer, and Roston and one of the women in the ensemble, Leah Stewart, sketch out a tender connection that endures through various challenges.

Stewart, Maureen L. Williams and Amber Rose are all powerful singers as they suffer, mourn the children they have lost, and appeal to God. Rose’s poignant performance of “Lord, I Want To Be a Christian” is utterly persuasive; so, later on, is Williams as the authoritative leader of a modern choir.

Venezia Manuel, a beautiful dancer of considerable range, rounds out the ensemble, performing both folkloric and lyric dances. Manuel and Mama Lisa Gage are the astute choreographers, and Himes uses all their work to enhance the show’s resonance through every era.

 

Dance complements the music that the (unseen) instrumentalists provide under music director Creath. They should have taken a bow with the others at the end. Daryl Harris designed the simple costumes, which speak to changes of time and place without compromising the actors’ movement.

You don’t have to be black to get a lot out of “Crossin’ Over.” Other ethnic groups’ stories are fascinating precisely because they are less familiar than those we know from the inside-out. I’m not even sure that you need to be an American. Human might just be enough.

“Crossin’ Over”

When • Through June 18

Where • Emerson Performance Center, Harris-Stowe State University, 3031 Laclede Avenue

How much • $10-$40

More info • 314-534-3807; theblackrep.org