“Broadbend, Arkansas” is billed as a musical about three generations of an African-American family in the South grappling with injustice. While technically accurate, that’s a misleading description of a show that falls so short of what it could be, that I prefer to view it as a work in progress.
The piece is a pair of back-to-back monologues interspersed with songs. In the first act, it is 1961, and Justin Cunningham portrays Benjamin Tate, who has worked as an orderly in a nursing home in Broadbend, Arkansas for about ten years. He is the father of twin toddlers, whose mother is mentally ill, so Benny must raise them by himself, with only the occasional help of his boss, Miss Julynne. Leaving his daughters in Miss Julynne’s care, Benny decides to drive a nursing home resident named Bertha to her granddaughter’s home in Memphis, which he realizes is close to the route of the Freedom Riders. “That’s why I made the deal with Julynne” – to take Bertha – “so I could follow them for a couple of days.” His involvement with these civil rights activists changes his life. At the end of Act I, he sings:
My daughters will see it, too –
the change that my heart has had.
I’m bringin’ home
a reborn man–
After intermission, it is 1988, and Danyel Fulton portrays a woman named Ruby, who is at a cemetery, talking to the gravesite of Miss Julynne. She turns out to be one of Benny’s adult daughters, and she has just come from the hospital room of her 15-year-old son Ben, who was beaten up by a cop for no reason.
“This is the world I brought him into. A world where black women are beaten. Where black men are beaten. Where they’re killed. For living.”
“Broadbend, Arkansas” offers the potential for a powerful story. Both performers are great singers of Ted Shen’s appealing jazz-inflected score. (Kudos in particular to Michael Starobin’s orchestrations and Randy Landau on bass.)
But the storytelling is so awkwardly structured that it leaves us confused more than moved. The whole first third of the 100-minute show is Benny telling the stretched-out story of the feud between Bertha and Miss Julynne, two white women who were married in succession to the same man. He impersonates each woman in turn, singing their parts. It’s a mildly amusing and eventually almost warmhearted tale, but it is difficult to see its relevance to what comes afterward. Perhaps it fits in to some consistent theme that escapes me, but on the surface it feels in substance and tone as if it were imported from an old-timey storytelling hour on the radio.
Later, Rudy tells us what happened to her father, which I won’t tell you; perhaps you’d find it more credible than I did, but in any case it could be more effectively introduced.
Another show I saw recently, Monsoon Season, was also a pair of connected monologues. The structure can work. At the end of “Broadbend, Arkansas,” Danyel Fulton lets loose with a powerhouse rendition of an uplifting anthem full of hope. My hope is that the creative team will find a better way to tell this story.
Transport Group/Public Theater co-production at Duke on 42nd Street
Libretto by Ellen Fitzhugh and Harrison David Rivers, music and additional lyrics by Ted Shen,
Directed Jack Cummings III
Scenic design by Jen Schriever; costume design by Peiyi Wong; sound design iby Walter Trarbach.
Cast: Justin Cunningham and Danyel Fulton
Running time: 100 minutes including an intermission
Broadbend, Arkansas runs through November 23, 2019