Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
First presented by The WordPlayers as a tour within Greater Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2016, Oh, Freedom is part play, part historical pageant. This production uses four actors: two black, two white, but I could envision additional actors for dramatic variety and a choir to give the musical end of things further body. The play has some expository stretches that don't full engage the audience, but the best sections are both educational and dramatically involving. This feels like a fine choice for the upcoming Black History Month.
Nellson Jacobs-Moore makes a fine debut at Manatee Performing Arts Center as Black Man. His monologue on the horrors of being forcibly removed from Africa, the boat trip to the United States, being sold, and the experiences of slavery is the dramatic highlight of the early part of the piece and is delivered indelibly. Moore's bio states that he is dedicating his performance to his grandfather, born a slave. It is a great pleasure to encounter Javisha Strong as Black Woman. Although cast youngshe is probably in her 20s and the role is ideally cast with someone 40-ishI am very pleased that Ms. Strong has the opportunity to move beyond her previous mostly ensemble and small supporting parts. She plays Harriet Tubman with force and dignity in a long sequence near the end of the play. Sarah DeYoung is making her stage debut at Manatee after previous efforts behind the scenes. Mark Woodland is a known quantity on area stages and here he adds strength as several white men who helped along the underground railway, which was neither underground nor a railroad, as the play informs us.
Ryan Brown makes his Manatee directorial debut, although he has served in other functions on and off stage. He keeps things focused and lets the script really deliver at its best moments. He is aided by a lavish, atmospheric set by Ralph Nurmela, fine costumes by Tara Cole, always fine lighting design by Patrick Bedell, and sound design by Tom Sell. Michelle Neal is credited as music director, although all singing is a capella. She has done a fine job coaching the performers, as the singing is strong throughout.
Acoustics in the Kiwanis Theater have often been a problem, sometimes major, sometimes minor. Here, sound carries in ways it has not often done in the past.
Although far from a perfect piece, Manatee Players' production of Oh, Freedom educates and entertains the audience. It is also a fine platform for some of the performers to make noticeable debuts or show serious growth.
Oh, Freedom, through February 10, 2019, at Manatee Center for the Performing Arts, 502 3rd Ave W., Bradenton FL. For tickets and information, call 941-748-0111 or visit manateeplayers.com.