Thursday, December 7, 2017

CROSS THAT RIVER by Allan and Pat Harris at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Carolyn Leonhart, Jeffery Lewis, Maya Azucena and Allan Harris in CROSS THAT RIVER.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Allan Harris, the acclaimed jazz musician, and his wife, Pat, devoted a decade to the development of Cross That River, and we can be glad they did.  Currently being staged at 59E59 Theaters, Cross That River is much more than a musical success – though it truly is that – with its remarkable score that runs the gamut from jazz to blues and from gospel to country western.  It is, in addition, the uplifting tale of Blue (played by Allan Harris himself as an adult and by Jeffrey Lewis as a youth), a runaway slave who was separated from his mother as a child and raised by his aunt, Mama Lila( Maya Azucena).  Blue manages to escape from slavery in Louisiana to freedom in Texas, becoming one of America’s first black cowboys, eventually leading a cattle drive to Abilene.  Along the way, he interfaces with a most diverse cast of characters: Courtney (Carolyn Leonhart), his master’s white daughter and his first love; a nameless old white man who guides him across the Sabine River to freedom; a mule skinner cook; the remnants of a tribe of renegade Comanche Indians; a regiment of black Buffalo Soldiers; Annie (also played by Maya Azucena), an exploited mail order bride; and the denizens of Diamond Jim’s  - assorted whores, gunslingers and card sharps.

The musical’s transcendent theme is man’s unquenchable thirst for freedom, whether he be a black slave prior to the Civil War, a Native American confined to a reservation, a woman exploited by a brutal paternalistic society, or an immigrant to our shores.   But what makes the play so timely today is its insistent focus on the fact that while America was never perfect and still isn’t, it is consistently evolving in the right direction and that that evolution is dependent upon the cooperative inter-relationship of all classes in our society.  It thus provides a sorely needed rejoinder to the polarizing forces in today’s world who see everything in terms of identity politics, whether they be white supremacists and anti-immigrant die-hards on the right or supporters of groups such as Antifa and Black Lives Matter on the left.

The musicians onstage are all extremely talented – Alan Grubner on violin, Miki Hayama on keyboard, Shirazette Tinnin on drums and percussion, Seth Johnson on guitar, and Jay White on bass and vocals – but it was Shirazette Tinnin who really blew me away with her extraordinary riff conjuring up the thunderous galloping of horses’ hooves.

Shirazette Tinnin in CROSS THAT RIVER.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
The four actors were also exceptionally talented – Allan Harris as Blue; Jeffrey Lewis as Young Blue; Maya Azucena as Mama Lila, Annie, a saloon hall girl, a Native American woman, and young Lila; and Carolyn Leonhart as Courtney, a saloon hall girl and as a Native American woman.  But for my money, it was Maya Azucena who really stole the show in both of her principal roles as Mama Lila and as Annie, not only in her ability to really belt out a song but in her expression of a deeply sensuous feline sexuality.


Maya Azucena in CROSS THAT RIVER.  photo by Carol Rosegg.

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